WellUrban

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

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lessons from across the ditch


I've just returned from a quick visit to Melbourne, which for reasons I've outlined elsewhere, may be the Australian city in which Wellingtonians feel most at home. Without claiming to be an expert (based on a handful of trips over the last decade or so), I'd like to point out a few things that Wellington should look at closely.

Building bold

Apartment facade at NewQuay, MelbourneWhile Melbourne has its share of uninspired office and apartment blocks, it's striking just how much their contemporary architects have been able to experiment with form and colour. Beyond the obvious showpieces such as Federation Square, Storey Hall and the Exhibition Centre, it's noticeable that even otherwise ordinary towers sport inventive cladding, bold colour schemes and spiky details. Forms tend towards the folded and faceted rather than organic and sinuous, but the overall effect is one of brash inventiveness, sometimes overwrought but often invigorating. Is it the result of enlightened planning, ambitious developers, or just loud Aussie self-confidence?

Waterfront

Melbourne has only started rediscovering its river and harbour edges over the last couple of decades, with mixed results. While the Southbank and Crown complexes are undeniably touristy, it's equally hard to deny that they're lively and popular, not just with tourists and diners but also with joggers, cyclists and local workers.

NewQuay, MelbourneThe public spaces at Docklands are much patchier, and while that may partly due to their current isolation, their design might have something to do with it. The wide plaza around the "Cow up a Tree" sculpture is bare and windswept, while the adjacent NewQuay may be overly shiny and new, it felt like a much more comfortable place to be. The well-defined series of transitions (from apartment towers to well-detailed mid-rise apartments, to restaurant terraces, via broad promenade to water's-edge pavilions and marina) creates a legible, intimate and sheltered linear space.

Federation Square is a different beast again, and while it hasn't really become an extension of the urban fabric, it benefits from proximity to the CBD and was always a lively place. The dimensions and colours remind me a lot of Civic Square, and while the architecture couldn't be more different, it's also interesting as a spatial experience. Views of the Yarra and South Bank are limited to glimpses and viewshafts rather than panoramas, but the river is a constant presence and there are plenty of pathways to the water as well as views from ground floor pubs.

Laneways

Centre Pl, MelbourneThe famous lanes, arcades and alleys make Melbourne rich with shortcuts, secrets and spatial contrasts. We should also be making the most of narrow lanes like Holland and Egmont streets, and perhaps in time we'll learn to treasure and enliven them. It's interesting that the developers of Chews Lane are taking Melbourne laneways as their explicit model, and while the renders of that project make the lane look uninvitingly dark due to the looming buildings on either side, similarly-proportioned lanes such as Degraves St and Centre Pl absolutely buzz with activity. A note of caution though: while those and other lanes have history and character on their side, "contemporary interpretations of laneways" such as those at QV have a tendency to be more like malls than organic expressions of urbanism.

Movement as experience

Pedestrian Bridge and Southern Cross Station, MelbourneMost of Wellington's recent transport infrastructure is dull and utilitarian, and we seem to have lost the sense of occasion that accompanied transport back when our Railway Station was built. Instead, Melbourne has in many cases decided to celebrate such structures, from pedestrian bridges to railway stations and freeway gateways. We could gain a lot from a similar celebration of journeying.

Other things that Wellington could do with:
Eureka Tower, Melbourne
  • a covered food-market
  • specialist bookshops
  • more trees
  • at least one proper residential skyscraper
  • trams!
  • terraced houses on the city fringe
  • more people (an extra three million would be good, but I'd settle for less)

18 Comments:

At 9:34 am, September 25, 2007, Anonymous Kerryn said...

Hmmm, more people. We really need to get other things right first, like decent public transport and good quality housing. Otherwise we're gonna end up with more 'bypasses' and slums in the making. Anyway, does the world really need more people? Ok, so Wellington is not the world but the phrase 'act local think global' comes to mind.

 
At 9:49 am, September 25, 2007, Anonymous Julian said...

We definitely need some better populated lanes. Even Christchurch is turning its old brick service lanes into funky destinations. Have to agree about the trees in town too, big leafy trees. And nothing says "city" like light rail - one question though - how can overhead wires for buses and light rail co-exist?

 
At 10:02 am, September 25, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"does the world really need more people?"

No, but it needs them in the right place, and sometimes a city needs the people in order to get the infrastructure right. A lot of people located close to public transport routes will help drive the viability and (hopefully) investment in those routes.

"the phrase 'act local think global' comes to mind"

As it does to me. Unless people are living self-sufficiently on a farm, it's far more sustainable for them to be living in dense cities than in sprawling suburbs. If we can attract the sort of residents who want to live in truly urban conditions, Wellington could truly benefit from the critical mass.

Wellington's probably the smallest city I could imagine myself living in, and then only just. Its compactness and the fact that it's the capital makes it feel much more like a metropolis than it actually is, but after a while it can feel a bit constraining.

Oh God, am I starting to sound like Damien Christie? I hope not, but there's an excitement about a big, bustling city that Wellington can imitate in small bursts, but not for long.

We don't need a huge population boost to give a greater sense of urbanity, though: the people just need to be central. Ernst Zollner (at the WCC) has estimated that each inner city resident spends 8 times as much in the CBD as someone who just works in the CBD, so if the population growth is concentrated within walking distance of downtown, there's a much greater effect on the number and diversity of shops, bars and cafes. So if we just had, say, 20,000 extra people between Thorndon and Adelaide Rd, that would have the same effect on CBD vitality as adding 160,000 people to Wellington as a whole. That, rather than building more Whitbys and Churton Parks, is the sort of growth I want to see in Wellington.

 
At 10:30 am, September 25, 2007, Blogger Joanna said...

Ernst Zollner (at the WCC) has estimated that each inner city resident spends 8 times as much in the CBD as someone who just works in the CBD

Huh? How does that work? I mean, I spend 9 hours a day at work, where do they find their 72 hours a day?

 
At 10:39 am, September 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

spends MONEY, not time.

 
At 12:32 pm, September 25, 2007, Blogger Glassboy said...

I think that Lambton Quay, lower Willis St, Manners St, and Courtney Place should be closed to traffic and free trams placed along the route.

The one way street nightmare that surrounds that central access should be removed.

Aotea and Jervois Quays should be strengthened as arterial routes, with more large bridges across them. Especially at the likes of Post Office square.

Traffic should also be able to move along the motorway to get places, rather than relying on the Terrace, Lambton Quay and Featherston St.

 
At 1:18 pm, September 25, 2007, Blogger Evad Rehtona said...

one question though - how can overhead wires for buses and light rail co-exist?

Very easily -- trams and trolley buses co-exist in many cities in the world. San Francisco, Athens, Rome, Bern, Z├╝rich, Geneva, Lyon, Budapest, Moscow... I could list dozens.

Where the single tram (light rail) wire crosses the double trolley-bus wire, the trolley bus wires are raised higher so that the tram pantograph does not contact the trolley bus negative wire. Simple.

Melbourne does not have trolley buses but it has 500 trams running on more than 30 routes, with 250km of track all told. Hardly any buses come into the city or inner suburbs, but trams even go to distant suburbs... the Bundoora and Vermont South lines are each 25 km long.

Wellington should convert the Johnsonville line to light rail using Citadis or Combino articulated trams as used in Melbourne and many European cities, and extend the tracks through the city to Courtenay Place, the hospital and the airport. The Island Bay trolley bus route should be reconverted back to trams as it is ideal for trams... heavy patronage, high frequency, largely flat and wide streets (though trams do narrow streets and hills very well too).

The Mairangi bus route should be converted to trolley buses... the wires could also then be used by the 17 and 18 diesels that go to the university and Karori Park (some extra connecting wire would be needed along Ghuznee St for the 18)

Melbourne's Port Melbourne 109 tram line was a rundown electric train like the Johnsonville line until 1987 when it was converted to "light rail" using modern trams on the right of way that used city streets in the CBD to take passengers closer to their destinations than the railway station. Ditto the St Kilda 96 tram, which uses the old St Kilda railway and runs on street at either end.

One can dream.

 
At 1:37 pm, September 25, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"spends MONEY, not time."

Yep, that's what Ernst means, I think. Although come to think about it, if you mean time spent in the city other than when you're tied to your desk or at home: a non-CBD-dweller might spend less than eight hours a week at lunch and otherwise wandering the streets, but if you live in the CBD and go out on a few weeknights as well as pottering around at weekends, you could spend 40-60 hours out and about. Not quite eight times, but pretty significant.

Part of the reason that inner-city dwellers spend more dosh in the CBD is that they're not spending it in the suburbs, of course. They're also less likely to be spending it on barbecues, lawnmowers and giant TVs. But there's also the fact that they're paying less for transport, so they have more disposable income. If a night out is going to cost you $30-50 in taxis, that leaves you with less to spend on dinner & drinks.

 
At 1:45 pm, September 25, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

evad: I agree wholeheartedly (which is no surprise!). The importance of Melbourne as an example is that it's Antipodean like us, so complaints like "Oh, trams are OK in Europe but it'll never work here" don't apply. Of course it's much bigger, which is why some more people here would help, but with 250km among 3.7 million people, at the same ratio Wellington could justify about 30km of light rail lines. If most of Wellington's future growth were to be concentrated along the J'ville - city - airport spine, then a single LR line could serve at least as many people as any single Melbourne line.

"Ditto the St Kilda 96 tram, which uses the old St Kilda railway and runs on street at either end."

Yes, I took the #96 on Saturday, and it's a great example of combining on-street running with a dedicated right-of-way.

 
At 3:01 pm, September 25, 2007, Blogger Stephen said...

About having more people: there is a case to be made that concentrating people in cities is positively better for the environment than letting them spread out. In which case we need to make it as nice as possible for people in cities. It could be a virtuous circle...

 
At 6:14 pm, September 25, 2007, Anonymous Julian said...

OK, here are some good tram/trolley crossing diagrams:

http://www.rhaworth.myby.co.uk/trtr/tramtrol.htm

Now we just need some leadership and a fair bit of cash. Easy.

 
At 5:07 pm, September 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice article, but you can't compare civic square to federation square.Civic square is a fantastic piece of architecture while federation square is a huge pile of ugly junk. Even the architects of federation square can't stand it.

 
At 5:54 pm, September 26, 2007, Blogger Erentz said...

"Evad Rehtona said... [snip] One can dream."

Sounds like you should've entered the intensity abc competition! You may be interested to pop down and see the entries, I think they open tomorrow at the State Insurance building. I'm thinking very many if not almost all of the entries will propose some amount of light rail.

Is it just me, or does it seem to be gaining popularity finally? (Although annoyingly all of the candidates for mayor this year except for one still seem to want Wellington to be a rural-esque low density town dominated by cars... but there were a couple of good sounding councillers up for the lambton ward)

 
At 8:49 am, September 27, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Anon: "Even the architects of federation square can't stand it." Really? Apart from their dissatisfaction with the alterations to one of the shards, which were forced on them as a compromise, I hadn't heard anything about that. DO you have a reference?

I'm not completely blown away by the architecture of Federation Square. The pinwheel tiling is a fantastic piece of 2D design, but it's just that: a fairly arbitrary wrapping for some relatively ordinary shapes. Some of the other bits come across as Liebeskind-lite, but others work very well and the Atrium is a wonderful spatial experience. I certainly wouldn't call it "a huge pile of ugly junk".

Erentz: "Is it just me, or does [Light Rail] seem to be gaining popularity finally?"

I think so, and I hope so!

"annoyingly all of the candidates for mayor this year except for one still seem to want Wellington to be a rural-esque low density town dominated by cars"

I share your frustration? Out of interest, who would you say is the one candidate who stands out?

 
At 9:59 am, September 28, 2007, Anonymous Toby said...

Interesting post Tom, thanks.

I like Fed Square more each time I see it. The angle on the thing, going down to the stage like a partial urban amphitheatre is great, and would have real sightline advantages over Civic Square's flat. The lanes in Melb work wo well in part due to the grid layout, as they are a logical way of connecting the streets. Welly's less structured layout explains fewer of the things I guess.

I take the points about more people, but more people isn't really going to happen, right? Not quickly anyway. Better to focus on the here-and-now, including projected medium-term population growth I think.

I love trams, but I am unclear as to the advantages they offer over trolleybuses, aside from aesthetic. And what would be the investment cost of, for example, your idea of a J'ville-city-airport light rail line? And are trams and light rail basically the same thing?

And I'm also interested in Erentz's comment "all of the candidates for mayor this year except for one still seem to want Wellington to be a rural-esque low density town dominated by cars". Who is the one?

On that, in most of the mayoral blurbs I've read, they are all banging on (in a vague fashion) about public transport--except for the incumbent, of course. But which of them actually mean it?

Toby

 
At 10:37 am, September 28, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Toby: "The lanes in Melb work wo well in part due to the grid layout, as they are a logical way of connecting the streets. Welly's less structured layout explains fewer of the things I guess."

Partly, though I think it's more due to the fact that Melbourne's Hoddle Grid is fairly coarse compared to Wellington's street network. Their blocks are approximately 200x100m, whereas ours are mostly smaller than that, so there's less need for shortcuts. Where we do have large blocks, such as in southeast Te Aro, there are currently informal pseudo-public shortcuts that we really should set aside right now as proper public walkways, so that they can eventually evolve into something like Melbourne's lanes.

"I take the points about more people, but more people isn't really going to happen, right? Not quickly anyway. Better to focus on the here-and-now, including projected medium-term population growth I think."

Sure, we're not going to get another 100,000 people overnight. But as I suggested earlier, concentrating the more modest growth that is expected into the central area can have an almost equivalent effect on the buzz and vitality of the city.

"I love trams, but I am unclear as to the advantages they offer over trolleybuses, aside from aesthetic."

Steel wheels on steel rails are more energy-efficient than rubber on asphalt; flexible trams can be longer than buses, allowing greater capacity for a given space and staffing level; the rails force a fixed route which is safer and more comfortable than the often wild swinging around of trolley buses, and makes "dewiring" pretty much impossible; the greater level of fixed infrastructure gives greater confidence to develop close to the stops. Trolley buses with dedicated lanes could give some of the benefits of trams, and could be an intermediate step towards them, but won't quite deliver the speed, comfort and efficiency. And the aesthetic aspect shouldn't be neglected: up-do-date well-designed transit systems can generate much more civic pride and hence greater passenger uptake than rickety old buses.

"what would be the investment cost of, for example, your idea of a J'ville-city-airport light rail line?"

I'm not sure, but it seems that most of the cost estimates bandied around by feasibility studies seem wildly overestimated compared to overseas projects. Additional infrastructure, such as raised sections or tunnels, will of course make it more expensive than just laying tracks on existing roads, but may be necessary to deliver a true express route to the airport.

"are trams and light rail basically the same thing?"

Light rail vehicles are essentially modern trams, but when people think of "trams", the image of a museum piece trundling around full of tourists (a la Christchurch) comes to mind, rather than a real transport system. And while trams usually share road space with cars, light rail vehicles can do that but also switch to dedicated lines, often converted railway tracks: a good example is the St Kilda #96.

 
At 1:27 pm, September 28, 2007, Blogger Toby said...

Thanks Tom. I see your point about trams--I presume that modern flexible trams would be flexible enough to get around Welly's tight corners? Mind you, there are fewer of those in the CBD. As a daily bus commuter, usually on trolleys, a unit that prevents or at least minimises mad lurching drivers has to be a good thing.

On that vein, can you get driverless trams? Presumably not from a safety perspective, with shared roads and all. Driverless light rail seems more likely.

I have a vague memory that the trams were removed here due to earthquake risk--is that right? And if so, have things changed?

BTW, I just saw your ABC entry. Congrats, it looked good up there.

 
At 11:56 am, September 29, 2007, Blogger Erentz said...

Tom, "I share your frustration? Out of interest, who would you say is the one candidate who stands out?"

Ooh I'm too shy to say now. In case it turns out I'm completely wrong about him. I can certainly say who it wasn't: anyone saying things about supporting Transmission Gully, talking about putting a hold to waterfront development, suggesting more green space. After that it's certainly not the incumbant, and I took a stab at what I thought the others were like from previous experience and arrived at my conclusion. But next time Tom you'll have to interview them all for your blog so the urbanists questions get asked :)

Toby, "what would be the investment cost of, for example, your idea of a J'ville-city-airport light rail line?"

From my research costs can be anywhere from $10m to $100m USD per mile in the US and recent ones in Europe. But an average tends to be down the bottom end. The top end tend to be more light metro style systems with elevated ROWs and a large amount of tunneling. And the very bottom end is more streetcar that light rail.

In the Wellington context, the Northern Transport Study suggested $50-70m to build LRT from the station to Courtenay Place. That works out to about $20-30m NZD per kilometer. I used about $35m NZD on average in my project to provide head room, and came to between $350 and $450 depending on the CBD route and the tunnel configuration between Newtown and Kilbernie. My suggested route was longer than many though, including Miramar as a stop to service commuters.

It is worth noting that would be a pretty rockin' LRT system with a fully dedicated ROW, you could do much cheaper just laying cheap streetcar style tracks, e.g. look at the costs of say the Portland Streetcar to compare (about $10m per km).

Also I don't think it'd be wise to look to overly cheap engineering solutions though. It seems (from my rudimentary analysis, Tom could probably provide more accurate analysis) that the population of southern and eastern suburbs grew at 2% pa in the last 7 years. If intensification is really pursued, and migration increases, I'd hope that this was a sustainable rate (or intensification isn't really happening in my book). Meaning by 2040 the population in these growth spine suburbs would double from 63 thousand to 123 thousand people. With the corresponding doubling of demand on transport.

Currently the modal split for commuters from these suburbs is roughly 59% private, 26% public, and remainder pedestrian.

If that doesn't change you'll need 6-lanes heading east, and 4-6 lanes heading south. Say if you optimally target no more than 35% of commuter travel by private vehicle, you'll only need 3-4 lanes both east and south, but you will need a public transport system servicing the southern/eastern suburbs capable of carrying something like 8,000 and 10,000 passengers per hour. (Currently it appears to carry about 2,500 pph and seems pretty crowded to me.)

/end-of-super-long-comment

 

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