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

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Mixed messages

There have been a few notable developments this week that could potentially have a major impact on the future of sustainable urban development in Wellington. Some of these have been good, some bad, and some have the potential to go either way.

Wind farms got the go ahead at Quartz Hill and Puketiro. Together, they could produce 236MW, enough to power nearly 125,000 homes.

Of course, Makara residents are planning an appeal against the Quartz Hill decision. I would have some sympathy if the objectors were farmers whose livelihoods were being put at risk. But only 5% of Makara residents actually work in the agricultural sector: the rest are "toy farmers" who consider that their right to views of untouched gorse from their lifestyle blocks is more important than sustainable energy for the wider community. Anyone who complains about "visual pollution" spoiling their ersatz bucolic idyll ought to live next to a coal-fired powerstation for a while.

The carbon tax got the chop. I haven't studied the tax in enough detail to form an opinion on how effective it would have been, but the signal is clear: pollution doesn't matter; short-term profits do. Both No Right Turn and Frogblog have predictably lugubrious posts on the issue.

The Harbour Quays development will now have to undergo public consultation and consent processes, as the district plan has been changed to ensure that it undergoes the same scrutiny as central city developments. This is potentially good news from an urban design point of view, as the present masterplans, while well designed, have no binding power and are stuck with an exurban "office park" mentality. This has raised concerns from a range of people, including the Architectural Centre, the council's City Gateway planners and even at least one property developer.

From what I've been able to make out, the main concrete effect of the change is to make the area subject to the Te Ara Haukawakawa design guide (1.2MB PDF) that cover the neighbouring Stadium and railyards area. The document covers design issues (public space, street furniture, spatial hierarchy etc) but doesn't try to encourage specific uses. Looking at the current masterplans and the new Stats building, there are already several things that don't match up to the design guide, such as creating positive open space, providing active edges to buildings, and avoiding large buildings in isolation. I can't see anything that will ensure mixed use and good connections to the rest of the city, but it's a good start nonetheless.

Inner residential neighbourhoods, namely Newtown, Berhampore and Mount Cook, now have stricter controls on multi-unit development. While these are designed to protect the historic character of the area, which is definitely a good thing, they will also make it harder to increase densities. I haven't read the details yet, but the main changes include: a reduction of maximum height from 10m to 9m; 45% maximum site coverage; and a 3m front yard rule.

While these rules might have stopped some of the truly hideous, cynical, overscaled, low-quality developments that have occurred, they will also prevent potentially well-designed housing at densities that are quite moderate by international inner residential standards. I generally believe that mid rise (three- to six-storey) housing produces better streetscapes and social interaction than true high-rise apartments, but with these limits on infill it's looking like there'll have to be more highrises in the CBD and Te Aro if we're going to prevent sprawl. Perhaps it's time to push for some residential development to be included in the Harbour Quays masterplan.


At 3:30 pm, December 22, 2005, Blogger s. said...

Word, Tom, on your wind-turbine comments. See private email for carbon tax remonstrations ;)


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