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

Monday, February 12, 2007

Density done right: Fountain Court

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In my previous examples of good medium- to high-density residential buildings, I've covered a range of styles, periods and typologies, from narrow yet detached Edwardian houses to contemporary high rise. A style that I've missed so far is one that's by no means typical, but surprisingly common in Wellington: medium-rise Art Deco apartment buildings. There are good examples scattered around the place (on The Terrace, in the Aro Valley and Mt Victoria), but one of my favourites is the Fountain Court flats at 48-54 Oriental Parade.

Fountain Court flats, Oriental Parade, WellingtonAt three storeys, it's hardly imposing, yet it gives quite a high density. The broad U-shaped plan provides light and views, yet the way that it's built right to the street edge allows for a fairly high site coverage. There's also scope for shared social spaces, in the courtyard, on the roof and in the open staircases inside, something that's missing from a lot of recent apartment blocks with their anonymous, hotel-like corridors. Even buildings with such spaces often struggle to generate any inter-apartment social life, but from what I can gather (including some very interesting parties), this is certainly a place to be sociable.

Fountain Court flats, Oriental Parade, Wellington - detail of fountain and courtyardI'm no architectural historian, and I haven't been able to find out much about its origins, but I'd say this falls towards the Moderne end of the Art Deco spectrum, since it lacks streamlining, setbacks and flamboyant detail. In fact, apart from some simple mouldings and elegant railings, it looks much more like an austere post-War Modernist building. It owes its character and appeal to the court itself, with its tiled fountain and greenery. This much more than the token light well that gets reluctantly shoved into recent apartment blocks: it's wide enough to open up to the street and views, while providing a privacy transition and giving the the building as a whole a sense of identity. While I don't think I've ever seen the fountain actually working, it gives the courtyard a focus, and although there's no "garden" as such, the plants soften the building and help screen the ground floor apartments from the street.

I've often said that one of the challenges that New Zealand faces in making a transition to more compact cities is that we lack a tradition of high-density urban living. While it's true that Wellington's inner residential neighbourhoods offer surprisingly high density by the standards of detached dwellings, we certainly have very few pre-War examples of terraced housing or apartments, and blocks like Fountain Court stand out as relatively rare.

In fact, it feels distinctly foreign, almost like something you might find in California or parts of Europe rather than in good old New Zild. A neighborhood consisting of similar examples would be unmistakably urban, without being part of the CBD, and courtyards like could this provide a range of options for shared facilities (gardens, swimming pools, tennis courts) that would make this sort of living appeal to a wider range of people. It's hard to imagine a developer spontaneously sacrificing so many lucrative square metres, but perhaps the volume restrictions in the new Central Area rules will make typologies like this more of an option in the future.


At 4:31 pm, February 12, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

and its a timely reminder of the annual Art Deco Weekend being held in Napier this weekend. ref www.artdeconapier.com

At 6:07 pm, February 12, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In various European cities I was always impressed at the way inner city aprtments, old and new, incorporate large internal courtyard spaces. Often green lanscaped spaces which provide mini oasis from the street outside. Internal apartments look over these courtyards giving them light and outlook.

These courtyard spaces are also what make family living possible (and indeed attractive) with apartments in some complexes looking over a secure central courtyard with childrens play areas.

The parent can be in their apartment and still maintain casual surveilance over their children. The children benefit from being able to play together socially in a secure environment.

Compare this to Wellington where all too often apartments depend on the underdevelopment of neighbouring sections for any light and outlook and only really cater to the young and old without children. If you have children you pretty much have to move to the burbs.

At 8:29 pm, February 12, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

I do know of people living in the city with very small children (pre-toddlers) or with over-10s: it's in the middle that it becomes difficult to live without some sort of outside area. But you're spot on: the assumption here is that the only people who don't want a big section are the carefree and childless. Apartments tend to real "inner city" apartments, so making space for children has never seemed like a priority.

There's no trouble attracting young people and empty nesters into the city (as the rents make clear, there's still plenty of demand!), but the big transition to urban living will come when families start to move in. That's a tricky move, since it requires either potential residents or developers to make a significant mind shift, together with significant help from planners to ensure that the streets, squares and parks back up the private spaces. I don't expect it to happen much in the real CBD, but in upper Te Aro, Mt Cook and any medium rise residential development that happens on redeveloped railway land in Thorndon, there's potential for family-friendly development.

At 9:26 pm, February 12, 2007, Blogger Will de Cleene said...

From my experience of apartment living in Orkland, I strongly urge that developers include outdoor peristyle gardens or similar public space to offset the high density setting. I hope WCC learns from Orkland's failures, including nanometre balconies and stairwells as the only public spaces.

Then again, I'd be happy if they just re-wrote the entire Unit Titles Act 1972.

At 12:23 am, February 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark Blumsky, for all his North Shore sensibilities, lives smack-bang in Cuba St.

He was on record saying he takes his daughter to play tennis at the Renouf Centre, among other activities of a physical nature within the CBD or within cooee of it. I'm not entirely sure, though, if the Renouf Centre counts as a public space.

Anyhow, here are some starter ideas for physical activity in the CBD: urban orienteering, and a Majestic Centre Gutbuster (what the building also needs is an observation deck).

At 12:24 am, February 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. I wonder whether the building is unit titled or company share. Unit title generally means more rentals, faster turnover of occupiers, and higher property values, which is why new blocks go for it. But some in company share blocks, which restrict renting, prefer it that way.

At 9:25 am, February 14, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Zippy: I think that some sort of shared space and decent outdoor areas should be a requirement for medium- to high-density housing in inner residential suburbs, especially those aimed at families, but I think there's still a place for simple, small apartments without balconies in the core CBD. Not everyone wants an outdoor space, or even a lot of sun, if they don't spend a lot of time at home. This is Wellington after all, and indoor-outdoor flow isn't quite so desirable when the outdoors is flowing at 40 knots! So, I think there needs to be a range of options.

DeepRed: I've been meaning to write about one of the "lost tribes" that the 8 tribes stuff missed. There are people who are just as materialistic as the North Shore types, and like earning and spending money, but don't want to live in the suburbs and are more likely to spend on clothes and entertainment than making sure their fridge is bigger and shinier than their neighbours. More later. I also think there are a lot of possibilities for physical activity in the city (walking to work rather than driving to the gynm is a good start), but the main issue for raising kids in an urban environment is reducing traffic so that the streets become a place to play. And I think thet Majestic Centre used to have an observation deck, but they closed it to the public years ago.

Anon: I don't know about the title at Fountain Court, but there seem to be a lot of young and arty people, possibly renters, living there. As a life-long renter myself, I'd be worried about a rise in the proportion of company share blocks and their restrictions on renting!

At 5:42 pm, February 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you give us some information what Population Density is and should be ?

I have found Wellington is listed as having a population density of 638/km2 while Kapiti has on 62 people/km2.

What density of people should be living in the CBD and what density should be in the suburbs ?

Perhaps even more importantly, what densities are unacceptably low and should have the district plans revised to limit housing below this level ?

At 7:53 pm, February 14, 2007, Blogger Will de Cleene said...

Ta for the update, Maximus.

Tom, I agree that not every apartment should legally require balconies. I've seen some useless ones in my time though, especially around the Orkland CBD. Some 5cm deep balconies have reached Wellington too, namely the apartments on the corner of Willis & Webb Sts.

At 11:11 am, February 15, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Zippy: some of those "nanometre" balconies can actually be quite useful, if they're integrated well. I've been in apartments where the "balcony" is nothing but a railing in front of sliding door, but the floor inside the window was tiled and filled with pot plants, and when the door was opened part of the living room became a semi-outdoor area. But you're right: often they're just rubbish.

At 11:40 am, February 15, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Anon: "density" can be a very slippery thing to define. What land do you count? Just the actual inhabited land parcels? Roads and parks as well? What about rural areas?

The stats on the site presumably just divide the population by the total area of the territorial authority, but since those authorities also include a lot of rural land, (e.g. all the land out to Makara west of Wellington) the density calculations are fairly meaningless. You have to look at area unit meshblock level to make sense of urban density.

The traditional "quarter acre" suburb would have about 30 people per net hectare, but a lot of space is used for roads, so the true density would be more like 20-25 (that's 2000-2500 per sq km). Based on 2001 data (2006 meshblock data is not quite ready), in Wellington, a few new subdivisions are below 20, but some of that may be because they're only partly complete. Inner residential areas (not CBD but not quite "suburbs" either) such as Mt Victoria, Thorndon, Mt Cook and Newtown are mostly between 80 and 120, and a few blocks on the fringes of the CBD get over 250, due to concentrations of highrises. In between the extremes,
most older hill suburbs (e.g. Wilton, Ngaio, Karori) are between 20 and 40, rising to 60ish in flatter places like Kilbirnie and Lyall Bay.

By comparison, most of Paraparumu and Waikanae is under 25 people per hectare, with only a couple of meshblocks pushing 40.

I hope that helps for now: as to what density "should" be, I'll write more soon.

At 2:29 pm, February 15, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Okay, "What density of people should be living in the CBD and what density should be in the suburbs?"

First of all, density is not an end in itself. There are at least four reasons I can think of to increase density: to save land; to make mass transit feasible; to promote local walking; and to create lively neighbourhoods. Density on its own, only helps the first one, but density in the right places and with the right mixtures helps all of them.

Some authors (such as Richard Rogers) suggest that 100 people/ha is a bare minimum to make mass transit feasible, and 150 is more like it. Wellington gets half-decent public transport with less than that, but with greater densities along the transport corridors it support cheaper and more frequent services. At that point, you're also starting to make a decent range of local shops possible - in quarter-acre suburbia you'll be lucky to have a local dairy within walking distance, let alone enough to do your daily shopping without a car.

Another important thing is to arrange the density well, with high density (150+ p/ha) plus shops and perhaps workplaces adjacent to a transit stop, then reducing density gradually outwards from there to allow for a range of housing types. Increasing density, but in a place isolated from main transit routes (as they're planning at Lincolnshire Farm), might be better than complete sprawl, but it won't really cut down on car use all that much.

In the CBD, well, the sky's the limit (literally!). Because there's a large daytime population, you can get a lot of retail and entertainment activity without high residential densities, and in fact a lot of downtown Wellington still had virtually no-one living there in 2001. I'd suggest, though, that a CBD should still have at least the same residential density as an inner residential neighbourhood (say, at least 100 p/ha) with a few exceptions to allow for noisy and/or noxious activities.

Really, really dense districts aorund the world (in parts of Hong Kong, Macau or Shanghai) have residential densities of 500 p/ha or more, consistently over entire districts rather than just for isolated blocks. I don't see that as being achievable or desirable in most cities, but there's room for a lot more. Even in 2006, after an apartment boom, the residential density of the Lambton & Te Aro districts is only about 70 p/ha, which is less than the low-rise inner residential nieghbourhoods.

By the way, I must get around to editing the Wikipedia page on cities by population density, where someone has quoted my earlier post to show that Wellington has a CBD density of 3030/sq km: that post was about workers, not residents, and they've miscalculated the conversion from ha to sq km.

At 2:27 pm, February 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, that was none other than myself. Must have been out by a decimal point. Still an impressive fugure though.

At 9:12 am, February 27, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Zippy: regarding "nanometre balconies", would this be a better answer?


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