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

Friday, October 05, 2007

IntensCITY notes: Gerald Blunt

Gerald Blunt's talk, New Zealand's Capital Centre: Matching the urban landscape to its national importance, raised a lot of intriguing issues about New Zealand's national identity and Wellington's role as a capital city. There are two broad types of capitals: dominant (e.g. London or Paris, where the capital is also the largest city and financial hub) and designated (such as Washington DC, Brasilia or Canberra, which were explicitly chosen and planned to avoid rivalry between states). Wellington is closer to the second type, since it is not economically or demographically dominant, and was designated as capital because of its geographic centrality. However, Wellington is not an artificial or planned city like the other examples, and thus lacks the grand formal nationalistic gestures associated with such capitals.

This may be entirely appropriate, since the modest, picturesque and informal qualities of our parliamentary precinct suits what many New Zealanders think of as our national character. We have little need for nationalistic symbolism, and planned capitals (full of monuments and grand axial boulevards) often lack character and intimacy. However, our national institutions are stuck within a messy part of town that not only lacks gravitas, but has poor legibility, street edges, public space and connections to the rest of the city.

Capital framework planHence, the council has been conducting a study into how we could improve what is being tentatively called the "Capital Precinct". This started as an urban design exercise, and produced steps towards concrete designs, such as a framework plan that included improvements to the Molesworth St streetscape, the treatment of Thorndon Quay as an extension of the Golden Mile, public art and monument plans, and distinct "Thorndon Village" and "Pipitea Precinct" nodes. However, an evaluation of the first stage decided that the study would have to include the whole inner city (to encompass Government House, the National Memorial and Te Papa), and should step back a bit to look at what the country as a whole might want to see represented in our capital.

I've heard other reports that this project has stalled somewhat, but it may not be a bad thing to take some time over something so important. The study thus seems to have morphed into something more like a conversation on national identity (so beloved of the current administration) and what that might mean in terms of "pride of place" and "identity by design". It considers both the considerable heritage value of the sites, and how we might move to a future vision of the capital as "a place to talk" which presents a sense of theatre about citizenship, representation and debate.

Some concrete ideas are arising from this, such as opening up some of the buildings (e.g. shifting the National Archives' emphasis from storehouse to showcase), creating a central interpretation centre and moving towards a coherent physical plan (though I wouldn't expect any wholesale Haussmannisation of Thorndon). As befitting the centre of bureaucracy, there'll have to be a lot of work done about funding, administration, land status and even choosing a name for the place before anything physical starts to happen.

Blunt stressed that the current exercise is not about drawing a masterplan, but about "infiltrating thinking", so that a whole range of agencies, institutions, private organisations and individuals start thinking about the urban and symbolic potential of this part of town. Part of that exercise might be to publish a booklet about "our extraordinary democracy": after all, as Michael King wrote, Aotearoa New Zealand was the last major land mass to be settled to humans, yet the first to see full democracy. I'm the sort of person who's usually impatient to see maps and renderings, but I think that this is something that ought not to be rushed.


At 1:34 PM, October 05, 2007, Anonymous LX said...

"There are two broad types of capitals: dominant (e.g. London or Paris, where the capital is also the largest city and financial hub) and designated (such as Washington DC, Brasilia or Canberra, which were explicitly chosen and planned to avoid rivalry between states)."

The fundamental differance between a Canberra or Brasilia and Wellington is that the former were purpose built as capital cities while Wellington was a pre existing settlement that was made a capital.

In this we have more in common with many US state capitals (i.e. San Jose California) or Bonn while it was capital of West Germany.

There are cities that just happen to be capitals and capitals that just happen to be cities (such as Canberra, Brasilia and Washington).

So in this regard we actually have far more in common with a Paris or London than Canberra or Brasilia.

London and Paris may be adorned by imperial elements but fundamentally they are still organic cities that existed long before the states that they became capitals of.

At 3:10 PM, October 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

San Jose isn't a state capital*. The capital of California is Sacramento. But Sacramento was an existing city at the time as well, so the rest holds, although it has had substantial governmental development over the last 150 years and probably has more in common with planned capitals than you'd think. The original City of Sacramento is only a tiny part of what's there now, and doesn't include many of the government buildings.

* It was, briefly, in 1850, but Sacramento has been continuously since 1854.

At 8:29 PM, October 07, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"So in this regard we actually have far more in common with a Paris or London than Canberra or Brasilia."

In urban design terms, that's largely correct, but the Paris & London are both primate cities that "that works as the financial, political, and population centre of a country and is not rivalled in any of these aspects by any other city in that country. Normally, a primate city must be at least twice as populous as the second largest city in the country." Wellington is far from that, and while its role as political capital doesn't dominate all other roles of the city to the same extent as it does in Brasilia or Canberra, it is the core distinguishing factor demographically and economically.

On the other hand, we're not a purpose-built capital, in that Wellington already existed, and did so in a place that has some natural advantages for a city (the harbour), unlike Madrid for instance, which when it was designated as capital was geographically central but disastrously hard to access and support. So, Wellington is neither dominant nor planned though it is "designated". I think your example of Bonn may be the closest analogue, in that the role of capital was grafted on to an existing city.

For me, it's one of the reasons (besides compactness) that Wellington is more interesting that other cities its size. By having all the machinery of government and national institutions (not just parliament and the judiciary, but the national museum, library, embassies, state visits and so forth), Wellington has become more cosmopolitan, more dynamic and better resourced than a similarly-sized city would be. But as this study points out, this status is not as well represented in the physical appearance of teh city as it might be.


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