No doubt many of you have had your fill of waterfront posts, but there was a slew of ill-informed letters to the editor in today's Dominion Post that I felt compelled to reply to. There are too many specific errors and misinterpretations to fit into in a 200-word rant, and I thought I'd try to tone down some of my usual vitriol, so I tried to offer a constructive discussion of why good public space design is more subtle and complex than just leaving as much empty space as possible. I'll reproduce the letter below, but first a couple of specific responses that I couldn't fit in.
One correspondent opined that people who currently like the waterfront would not "feel the same once they realised they'd be sitting in front of four- to six-storey buildings, most of mirrored glass, looking directly on to where they were planning to relax". I'm not sure where he gets the mirror glass from, but here are some shots of people who somehow managed to relax despite the oppressive presence of buildings.
It's worth noting that in each of these, not all of the ground floor space had yet opened to the public. Once the public space improvements and active edges are complete, these spaces will only get more popular.
Another writer says "Why the park requires updating is a mystery. The 'designs' [love the scare quotes!] depicted are hideous, with hardly any green space able to be used by the public". I'd say that the park requires updating because it's outdated, decrepit and not suited to the 21st Century, but if I said that I wouldn't be able to resist saying that those are the qualities that Waterfront Watch personally relate to. As for "hardly any green space", has this person even looked at the wide expanses of grass in the plans for Options B or D? Compared to a current aerial photo, there's little or any loss of openness, and while the others have less obvious lawn area, there's much more in the way of sheltered and varied recreational spaces. Anyway, despite my weariness over these arguments, here is my polite and measured reply.
One problem with debate about the waterfront is the use of simplistic assumptions rather than actual observations of how people use urban space. The quality of the public realm is not measured in square metres, but through a whole range of qualities relating to subjective experience, comfort, design quality and human interaction. For instance, people tend to congregate around the edges of spaces rather than heading for the centre, so that breaking down a space into a variety of intimate, sheltered places can provide more opportunities for public enjoyment than if it had been left as a featureless field.
There's also an assumption that commercial and residential activity has to be at the expense of recreation, when in reality they can enhance one another and create new interactions. Some also believe that it's best to have panoramic views from everywhere, whereas creating sequences of open and framed views leads to a much more interesting and varied urban experience. And an urban experience is exactly what the CBD waterfront should be: compact, complex and lively, rather than a simulacrum of outer suburbia.