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

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Urban Eye: the Left Bank

The Left Bank development is a very rare beast: a brand new street in the heart of the city. It links the popular, semi-bohemian Cuba Mall to Victoria Street, a major traffic artery.

Urbanism +4
Left Bank has all the ingredients for a lively, compact urban quarter: a new pedestrian street full of shops and cafés, with small businesses and homes above.

The scale and style are appropriate for the context, with three storeys on the Cuba Mall side rising to five storeys near the centre of the block. The retail units took a while to lease, but they are now mostly occupied and the place has a pleasant buzz, especially on sunny days.

In some ways, it's a larger version of Willis St Village, but as the name suggests, the Left Bank is aiming for a more European, urban vibe. The main difference, though, is that it provides a new thoroughfare, thus potentially benefiting from through-traffic that a cul-de-sac like Willis St Village can't enjoy.

Only a couple of issues prevent the Left Bank from being worth a perfect +5. First, the scungy and forbidding connection to Victoria St. Low-roofed and mostly blank-walled, it's little more than a service alley. It's a difficult situation to work with, but I hope that there are plans to liven it up, perhaps by opening some doors to the shop on the southern side.

More seriously, apartments on the north side lacked the soundproofing required to deal with the adjacent Matterhorn bar. Building apartments next to a popular live music venue is asking for trouble, and since most new inner-city dwellers are not night owls, noise complaints were inevitable. Luckily, the Matterhorn was successful enough to afford a radical renovation (with very stylish results, though it looks like a sell-out to old-school Matterhorn regulars).

Aesthetics +2
The low-key design and inexpensive materials have been the subject of controversy, regarded by some as cheap and nasty. On the other hand, I think that they're appropriate for Cuba St, and that the exposed plywood, industrial metals and untreated pine suit the do-it-yourself ethic of the area. There's nothing spectacular or memorable in the new architecture, but the cheery colours and unpretentious detailing make it a pleasant place to be. It's messy, heterogeneous and shabby in parts, but feels all the more organic for it.

Environment +1
There doesn't appear to be any particular environmental initiatives here (such as green roofs or solar panels), just some modest planting. The whole concept, however, supports sustainable urbanism through density and the provision of new pedestrian thoroughfares.

Social +4
Not a Starbucks or Whitcoulls in sight! This could have been another Courtenay Central, full of chain stores and a generic food court, but instead it's a lively mix of independent one-off businesses. Inexpensive boutiques, a secondhand bookshop, quirky galleries and little cafés: it's everything that Cuba St is supposed to be. Fashion HQ, an incubator for new Wellington designers, adds to the local flavour.

Though the more upmarket apartments on the north side prompted a spat with Matterhorn, some of the residential units have been left as basic flats, thus reducing the gentrifying effect. Finally, this is a rare example of a developer-led initiative that adds to the public realm rather than privatising it.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Urban Eye: the scoring system


The scores for each criterion range from -5 to +5. I chose a two-way scale rather than a simple zero-to-ten range, because developments can have either a positive or a negative impact on the life of the city.

Developments aren't treated in isolation, but are relative to what was there before. Thus, even if something is worthwhile in itself, if it resulted in the destruction of a lively part of the city then it may have a negative impact. A score of zero indicates an absence of impact: it may be a missed opportunity, but at least it didn't do any damage. -5 is reserved for unmitigated disasters and +5 for outstanding, world-class urbanism.


This score represents a project's contribution towards the life and vitality of the city. Positive qualities could include interactivity, diversity, legibility, compactness, connectedness, multifunctionality, adaptability and liveliness. Negative aspects include anything that deadens the surroundings or detracts from the life of the city as a whole.

All of the criteria are subjective, but none more so than aesthetic judgement. My own preference is for crisp, urbane contemporary modernism, but with an appreciation for quirkiness and individuality. While I enjoy genuine historical details, I have little patience for fake historicism, especially where there's no local precedent (faux Tuscan or mock Tudor). Above all, this site is about urbanism rather than architecture, so scores are based more upon contribution to the streetscape than individual brilliance.

Positive scores are given for any initiatives that reduce energy use (such as passive environmental controls or solar power) or make use of recycled materials (including re-use of old buildings). This category also take into account contributions to sustainable urban form through density and the use of brownfield sites. Above all, it recognises anything that encourages walking, cycling or public transport over car use.

This score measures contributions towards social inclusion, community well-being and independent small businesses. Any project, no matter how lively, attractive or environmentally sound, will score poorly here if it drives out low income earners, privatises useful public space or replaces unique local shops with homogenised global retail outlets.