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

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Last night I went to the Waterfront Development Subcommittee meeting to give an oral submission. The phrase "oral submission" sounds like something you have to pay extra for at Madame Lash's House of Discipline, and indeed the whole process seems to require a predilection for masochism. The meeting was less acrimonious than the previous one, largely due to the absence of a certain Councillor, but I can see why I was the only one to make a positive submission in person, despite the written submissions being evenly split. The only ones who would put themselves through such an ordeal are those who are implacably opposed, or not of sound mind, or both. And, of course, those of us who are passionately committed to the future of our city and willing to sacrifice good drinking time on behalf of those who are too busy or sane to go through the process themselves!

The main items on the agenda were the Overseas Passenger Terminal (OPT) proposal and the updated draft Waterfront Development Plan (398kB PDF), with the changes that I outlined earlier. The Queens Wharf Hilton was not specifically up for discussion, and anyway I'd only just read the relatively surprising news that the regional council has recommended against that application, and I'll need to read their report (1.6MB PDF) in detail before discussing that further. In addition to the usual Waterfront Watchers, there were many submissions by berth-holders at Chaffers Marina who had genuine concerns about access. It seems that they had bought berths with the understanding that they would each get a dedicated carpark, but the legal status of those is a bit fuzzy and the proposal only has a limited number of parks for marina servicing. Wellington Waterfront Ltd is in negotiation with the berth-holders to find a workable compromise that is adequate for their needs without surface parking dominating the public spaces.

I certainly want the marina to remain viable, both for the marina users' sake and for the diversity and character of the waterfront, but one irate submitter demanded a situation that sounds utterly repellent for pedestrians. He spoke glowingly of Seaview and Mana marinas, which not only had a permanent carpark for every berth but hundreds of casual carparks! I really don't think that Seaview or Mana are attractive models for an inner city waterfront.

Anyway, I modified my submission to include brief responses to that submitter and some others, but otherwise it was pre-prepared. I didn't write much about the OPT as such, but concentrated on the changes in the development plan and reiterated the reasons why I support an urban waterfront. Here it is, with some added links and comments:


I agree with Ron England that reporting by triple bottom line would be a good thing. It's worth pointing out that one reason why Wellington has a low ecological footprint for its size is that it has a relatively high-rise high-density inner city.

Also, contrary to claims that the OPT area already has enough restaurants, this is part of the biggest restaurant [and Martini!] gaps in the CBD. There is currently only one waterfront restaurant between Queens Wharf & Oriental Parade!

Waitangi Park is a great example of contemporary landscape architecture and is wonderfully detailed, but I fear that it will not reach its full potential unless the complementary buildings are completed as planned. I hear a lot of comments about the park, both online and in person, and none of them express a need for more open space. If anything, there is too much open space, and the current lack of shelter, intimacy and vertical elements gives it a sense of barrenness. Just allowing the open spaces to flow amorphously around the corner of Chaffers Dock wouldn't actually provide the public with more usable space, but using buildings to define public spaces with a range of shapes, styles and characters will do.

It's interesting to look at the change in use of the park since the end of the Arts Festival. The only time the lawn was even close to being packed was during the Fat Freddy's Drop concert, and that was when much of the lawn was used by tents and stages, and the graving dock and wind gardens were still blocked off. Back then, the festival club bar and Earth from Above exhibition brought activity at night. Everyone loved the Les Arts Sauts tent, even though it was bigger, closer and more closed-off that the planned UN studio building.

Since then, even on reasonably pleasant weekends I'd say that only about 10% of park visitors venture onto the grass, and the rest stick to the skatepark, playground or promenades: precisely the elements that some people deride as "too much concrete". All of this tells me that there's enough open green space, and what the area needs is not more space but the variety, shelter and activity that the planned buildings would bring. There are some parts of the city that need more open public space, but not the Waitangi Precinct.

I'm surprised by criticisms of the plan to move the Chinese Garden to Frank Kitts Park, since this was asked for by the Chinese community [for Feng Shui and symbolic reasons as well as practicalities] and seems like a better location for it in any case. One submitter claimed that Frank Kitts Park is too small and well used to fit the Chinese Garden, but that doesn't match reality. At a rough estimate, I'd say that only 15-20% of the park's area would have to be converted to create a garden the size of the one planned for Waitangi. Apart from the playground and promenade, the park is sparsely used and is only full when there are organised events, which would work better at Waitangi Park anyway. Often I've seen more people around the relatively built-up parts of Queens Wharf than in the whole of Frank Kitts Park. There are some good bits of the park, such as the amphitheatre and playground, but it's looking rather dated and was built with the assumption that it had to be protected from the waterfront car race. It can only benefit from a thorough redesign that engages with the water and the rest of the waterfront.

Waterfront Watch's submission quotes Jan Gehl as saying that there needs to be more green space and that new buildings should only be two or three storeys. I wasn't here for his talk, but that's inconsistent with his final report.

On page 57 (204kB PDF) he says "Given the large spaces along the water's edge there are plenty of opportunities to introduce dwellings, retail outlets and cultural institutions along the water." On the next page he shows examples from Auckland, Malmo and Perth to demonstrate that "a level of intimacy has been achieved … where the presence of residents and a multitude of people orientated activities … create a lively and safe environment." The accompanying images show buildings of four to seven storeys.

When quoting Gehl's advice, it's worth bearing in mind that his best-known book is called "Life between buildings", not "Life without buildings".

He has also consistently shown that the archenemy of urban public space is not well-designed buildings but cars. In Copenhagen he has shown the advantages of gradually reclaiming roads and carparks as pedestrian space, and he provides plenty of local examples where we have the same potential. How ironic, then, that many of the self-styled defenders of "open space" are also quick to decry the lack of car parking!

I realise that existing users such as the marina require some parking for loading, but the last thing we need is an inner-city waterfront that resembles exurban nightmares like Seaview or Mana. I urge you not to be swayed too much by those who think that fit young rowers can't walk a few metres from Cable St [a dispute that looks to have been resolved satisfactorily for both parties] or that surface carparks count as valuable public space in danger of "privatisation". Keep on with your vision for an urban waterfront with enough activity to attract people out of their cars to the water's edge.


At 1:55 pm, June 27, 2006, Blogger Miramar Mike said...

Can I just say that I am blown away by both your commitement to the city, the work you put in AND how much of an effort you go to make it better for all us. Thanks

(Yes, I can "just say" :-)

At 2:27 pm, June 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yay for tom

At 1:16 pm, June 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said. Great that you took the time to present in person. I usually only get as far as making a written submission online. Really need the counterpoint to the "more open space brigade". More urbanity please!


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