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

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Urban Eye: Ebor St townhouses

An attractive example of a low-rise medium-density residential street.

Urbanism +3
I have long thought that the Georgian terraces and mews of West London provide a wonderful model for residential districts on the fringes of central cities: they provide surprisingly high densities without high-rises; they offer a balance between privacy and neighbourly interaction; they can easily adapt to other uses; and they help define the street as an active urban space. However, until recently I hadn't seen a local development that successfully adapted the underlying typological properties rather than aping the historical detailing. I think this is the best example that I have seen.

The basic structure and scale of this townhouse development are very similar to mews or low-rise terraces. The top storey has been set back from the street, thus reducing bulk and shading effects while adding a balcony. In addition, each townhouse has a front porch and tiny garden, so that there's a reasonable amount of outdoor space for a relatively compact development.

However, there is one way in which this departs from the terrace model. It has been built largely within the envelope of an old car workshop, the footprint of which was too deep for standard apartments but too shallow for two rows of three-storey townhouses without leaving a dark, narrow path between them. Thus, between the two rows of terraces there is an elevated private "street" of two-storey apartments, with an at-grade car park below. On a less restricted site, it might have been better to have a public path at ground level instead.

There are some minor downsides. The interior plan might not be ideal for the inhabitants, since New Zealanders are used to low wide houses rather than tall narrow ones, and the units receive natural light from only one side. Another disappointment is that the opposite side of Ebor Street is a blank wall, though with luck that might change in time. More importantly, the modestly domestic scale, with a single use and only moderate density, doesn't seem quite appropriate for central-city ex-industrial Te Aro. This sort of development would be more suited to inner suburbs such as Mt Cook or Berhampore, with a less linear version (more like Ian Athfield's quasi-hill-towns) for steeper sites like Mt Victoria. But these are minor quibbles, and in the right place this could be an inspirational model for medium-density residential neighbourhoods.

Aesthetics +4
To my eyes, this is a very appealing and humane street. It's good to see a middle ground between agressively hard-edged modernism (which I enjoy myself, but can be off-putting for middle New Zealanders looking skeptically at higher urban densities) and banal historicist pastiche. The style is crisp and mostly contemporary without being self-consciously so. The bay windows and inter-tenancy walls help to modulate the elevation and connect it to the human scale, and the curves are derived from the retained façade of the old Ford workshop. The materials and colours are earthy and restrained, and the whole complex is easy on the eye without being an outstanding work of art.

But there are two reasons why this development is especially attractive. Firstly, it's not dominated by cars: compare it to the units next door, each with an individual garage door presenting a blank and forbidding face to the street. Secondly the extensive planting (front gardens, street trees, window boxes and climbers) adds interest and life, and it is this aspect that makes so appealing the thought of whole neighbourhoods designed like this.

Environment +2
As well as its aesthetic value, all that greenery (grass, street trees, front gardens, window boxes and climbers) absorbs CO2 and provides habitat for birds and insects. The development as a whole makes good environmental sense, since it provides housing at moderate densities on a brownfield site.

Social +1
There was no direct gentrification involved in this development, and while some might worry that a blue-collar workplace has been replaced by moderately upmarket housing, I believe that the workshops had fallen out of use long before the conversion. Unlike the nearby Sanctum apartments, which fenced off an unofficial mid-block connection for private gardens, these townhouses face the street, add greenery to the public realm and maintain public connections through an otherwise large block. I've also seen residents sitting in their front yards and children playing on the street, so it has the potential to foster social interactions and neighbourliness.


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