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

Monday, April 24, 2006

Drawn and quartered

Comparing the old and new 'quarters' of downtown WellingtonSome time ago, Positively Wellington Tourism decided to divide downtown Wellington into four "quarters" so that they could promote the distinctive qualities of different parts of the central city. They used maps of these quarters to arrange guides to art, fashion and other attractions, and it caught on with other organisations such as CaféNET, who divide up their hotspot maps the same way.

But times have changed, and so has the city, so it appears that they have redrawn the map of Wellington. We still have four quarters, but as this comparison shows (old above, new below), there is one new quarter, one has been annexed by its neighbours, and the others have undergone some subtle changes. Of course, this is all driven by tourism and somewhat arbitrary, but by looking at the changes we might learn something about perceptions of the city.

It always seemed odd that the Waterfront was excluded from the map of "downtown", and now it gets included as a quarter of its own, stretching from Whitmore St all the way to Freyberg beach. This makes sense on one level, but in a way I'm disappointed, since it reinforces the waterfront's separation from the city: I'd rather have seen Kumutoto and Queens Wharf included in Lambton, the Waitangi precinct with Courtenay and so forth, thus emphasising the city-to-waterfront connections. It also seems a little anomalous that it stretches inland to include Civic Square and the Rialto and Wellington Market buildings.

The former Willis quarter has disappeared entirely, losing Civic Square to the Waterfront while most of the rest is gobbled up by Lambton. It was always a bit of a poorly-defined "quarter", since it was mostly defined by not being part of the others and it was hard to claim that there was a distinctive "Willis" feeling. On the other hand, it doesn't feel right to see places like House of Hank now counted as part of the Lambton quarter.

Speaking of which, while Lambton gains most of Willis, it loses the little blocks between Whitmore and Bunny streets. This seems like strange timing given the recent development here (including the Holiday Inn and the VUW downtown campus), so I can only surmise that this is in expectation that this will become part of a better-defined "Capital Precinct", which is currently subject to an urban design exercise (74kB PDF).

The Cuba quarter only undergoes minor changes, with the exception of the blocks south of Dixon St between Willis and Victoria. These are no longer part of "downtown Wellington" at all, so according to this, I'm no longer a downtown resident. The horror! But I have to admit that with a few exceptions (such as Bar Bodega), there's not much in that sliver that feels particularly "Cuba". On the other hand, there's no acknowledgement that the very top of Cuba St is in the process of being amputated by the "bypass".

There are more significant changes in the Courtenay quarter. Waitangi Park gets ceded to the Waterfront, and there's some adjustments to the boundary with Mt Victoria, but the main change is that everything south of Vivian St (part of what I've been calling "SoCo") gets the boot. From a tourist's point of view I suppose there's very little of interest here, but I'd like to think that with some sensible urban design it could become a great little residential and retail precinct.

In the past, there have been occasional attempts to define a fifth "quarter", usually Thorndon. Leaving aside the fact that in Roman cuisine the phrase "Quinto Quarto" refers to offal, it makes sense to acknowledge that there are other neighbourhoods that aren't quite "downtown" but that nevertheless have some urban interest. Thorndon is adjacent to the CBD, but lacks any real coherence, since the chi-chi boutiques of Tinakori Rd have little in common with the brutalist towers of Molesworth St or the large-format furniture stores of Thorndon Quay. The "City Gateway" might eventually become a real city precinct, but for the moment it looks like we're stuck with an isolated office park. Newtown is certainly a bustling and fascinating suburb in its own right, but the long barren strip of Adelaide Rd keeps it separate from the city. But there's another contender.

The upcoming Big Look-See (a "behind the scenes" arts weekend) has a map showing locations of events, and it's based upon the new downtown map but with a special inset: for Petone. Of course! It's been on the gentrification wagon for years, and it now boasts some unique food outlets, good cafés and galleries and even a branch of Chow. It's also apparently full of jelly. So is Petone the new Thorndon?


At 5:35 pm, April 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG - are you suggesting that it might actually be something worth visiting the "parched suburban hinterlands of the Hutt"? (Comparisons are bibulous) - the very place for "continuous drunken loops at 3 a.m" (Back to Baku).
To be fair, the above is pretty much spot-on.
But calling Petone the "new Thorndon" is going too far. How many good op-shops does Thorndon have? How many great cheap food emporiums?
The "new Newtown" is more like it.

At 11:25 am, April 26, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Anonymous: yes, perhaps "the new Thorndon" is a bit much, but I get the feeling that it's out-gentrified Newtown already. Most of the Hutt Valley's redeeming features are on or near Jackson St.

Bush whacker: I agree that it's all very arbitrary, but it's not really about trying to create communities but to organise lists of tourist attractions, and on that level it makes some sort of sense. The established suburbs of Wellington have a sense of cohesion because they have long-standing residential community, but most of Te Aro has been (for the last 50 years or so) predominantly light industrial with few residents, so there hasn't yet been the organic evolution of distinct "neighbourhoods" within it. Cuba and Courtenay definitely have distinct characters, though mostly based upon their retail and entertaiment functions than as "communities", and even then they have been helped along by council initiatives (Cuba Mall, the Courtenay Place revamp).

I'm not sure that SoCo/NoHo/whatever is much like Cuba St either: Taranaki St forms a physical and conceptual barrier that makes it hard to think of Cuba St as the cenre of the neighbourhood. With the number of new apartments on the way between Courtenay Pl and Buckle St (maybe we should call it "CourBu", though it's not exactly a Ville Radieuse) there's a danger that we'll get a mass of residents in a place without a natural centre, quality public public realm or shared sense of place. Maybe that's something that should be raised at tomorrow's public meeting on the Urban Development section of the Long Term Plan?


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