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

Monday, July 16, 2007

D-Day for J-Ville

If you want to have your say on the Johnsonville Town Centre Plan, you'll have to do so by 5pm today. It's mostly a conceptual framework rather than a detailed urban plan, but the sentiments and the broad practical suggestions all seem to be just what's needed for sustainable transit-oriented development.

In fact, some of the goals are quite ambitious. The plan (1.85MB PDF) states that:
Johnsonville will become the 'capital' of the northern suburbs and Wellington City’s second largest centre. It will provide a wide range of employment opportunities, quality shopping and leisure experiences and be a great place to live ... Future growth will be unlocked to provide much greater housing choice with apartment living in the town centre and different housing styles in the surrounding area – making Johnsonville an attractive home for young professionals, families and the older generation. The local economy will also be boosted by the growth of small dynamic companies.
I hope it doesn't sound too rude to Johnsonvillians to say that there's a long way to go! The plan goes beyond the narrow definitions of urban design to look at economics and employment balance, and they certainly have a point. It says that "employment in Johnsonville is dominated by the retail, construction and service sectors with much lower representation in other sectors," and that the council should "promote opportunities to grow under-represented employment sectors, including: small-scale offices, start-up business premises, 'new economy' businesses, creative industries and tourism-related businesses".

That all makes sense, but it's difficult for at least two reasons. First, economic trends are very hard to "engineer", and it's not just a matter of adjusting the District Plan. Secondly, it's a bit of a "chicken & egg" situation: the vitality and variety of a neighbourhood can definitely be improved by the presence of lots of energetic small businesses, but it takes more than cheap rent to encourage hip start-ups to move to a place. I know I'm probably being a bit of a snob, and I do actually know people who've started tech companies there, but I'd think twice about taking a job there, and I can't envisage a horde of "creative industries and tourism-related businesses" clamouring to establish themselves in edgy, happening Johnsonville.

The plan also includes some fairly detailed suggestions of how and where increased density should be achieved. The map in the PDF has been JPEGed to death, so here's a reconstructed version, showing where townhouse and apartment development should be encouraged. All of the intensification is less than ten minutes' walk from the town centre, and the apartment zone is concentrated in the existing under-utilised mall-centric commercial district. In other words, this looks to be everything that infill should be.

Proposed intensification zones for JohnsonvilleNote the marker showing the location of a proposed development at 62 Woodland Rd. Thanks to Michael D for drawing my attention to this, which is a notified consent that breaks all the rules. I'm all for greater density, but 42 units on what looks to be greenfield land, near a stream, and more than ten minutes' walk from the transport hub, is not the right way to do it. Even in the right locations, there will be a struggle to ensure that new developments actually put any effort into good design, especially if recent proposals for Te Aro are anything to go by.

An integrated plan like this, which takes transport, economic and social factors into account, is a vital starting point. But it requires residents, businesses and developers to get behind it if Johnsonville really is to become the "capital of the northern suburbs" rather than a dormitory suburb with a mall, or a random mix of bad apartments and quarter-acre sections. If you've got an opinion, go online now and let the council know.


At 11:25 pm, July 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You really should be paid for your much appreciated PR work for the Council. Honestly, their diagram for the centre of J'ville was totally confusing and misleading - no wonder that neither they, nor the people of J'ville, know whether they are coming or going.

But your diag - why, its nice and clear - and so now we know what they're on about, including in the "lets-chop-down-the-trees" scheme in the woodland glen.... and boo hiss to that too.

WCC: stand firm to your plan !!!
Don't get bullied by the developers!!

At 5:04 am, July 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, Are you aware of the plan to quadruple the Christchurch inner-city population within 20 years.
Is there a similar plan for innercity Wellington. Is the Christchurch plan targetting the same sort of businesses and residences as the J'ville plan?

At 9:41 am, July 17, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Horatio: well, I like to think it's not "PR" as a bit of tidying up. The diagrams in the PDF were not so much misleading as illegible, and I presume the printed version was better. Maybe they'll eventually find out that PDF can include vector graphics as well as horribly over-compressed JPGs?

As for the Woodland St development, I haven't seen the details (not online - you have to go to the library to see it) so I can't comment too much, but I've seen the list of ways in which it breaches the District Plan, and the WCC would have to be crazy to allow it.

Kevyn: I'd heard something about it, but thanks for pointing me to the document. Christchurch certainly needs it! When I lived there (many years ago) it was already getting hollowed out, and on my last visit it seemed even worse.

As for Wellington having a similar plan, I'd have to say "yes and no". The council is expecting the increase in inner city population to continues, but isn't making much of a push to make it happen: there's already enough market demand, and it's more a question of ensuring that it happens without damaging the urban environment (which they're not doing very well). They don't have major plans for civic works, unless you count the waterfront, but there's a lot of little urban improvements planned.

It would seem that the ChCh plan is indeed targeting the same sort of businesses as the J'ville one, and it should be easier to get it to happen in Christchurch: which for all my dislike of it, is at least the CBD of a medium sized city rather than a suburban shopping centre.

At 4:55 pm, July 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The current housing prices are forcing younger families to search for residences outside of Wellington City proper, and if living within walking distance to a centre of some kind, than J'ville becomes quite attractive. (as does Petone, which is already priced out).

Hopefully this ne demographic will lead to some of the kinds of businesses desired (over time).

At 9:57 am, July 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

J'Ville centre currently seems to be one big ugly surface car park. The plan is a good one.

Does a suburban centre really need other industry? If you have shops/restaruants/bars on the ground floor and apartments on top then you'd get the population density in the centre to hopefully liven the place up.

The major flaw seems to be the assumption that J'Ville becomes a walkable community. People are stupidly lazy and will drive 5 minutes instead of walking 10. Take the ugly car parks away and they'll probably just drive somewhere else.

At 1:58 pm, July 18, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Does a suburban centre really need other industry? If you have shops/restaruants/bars on the ground floor and apartments on top then you'd get the population density in the centre to hopefully liven the place up."

That will do it to some extent, but I think that it won't be enough. Having more workers during daytime will help make the shops & cafes viable and give it a bit more variety. It's also an opportunity to provide more affordable workplaces than the city could provide, and the possibility of people commuting in to Jville as well as out of it will improve the viability of the Jville line by making better use of returning carriages.

"The major flaw seems to be the assumption that J'Ville becomes a walkable community. People are stupidly lazy and will drive 5 minutes instead of walking 10. Take the ugly car parks away and they'll probably just drive somewhere else."

That's always a worry, but I don't think the plan calls for total elimination of the surface carparks, just replacing them with multi-storey parking. In defence of the good people of Johnsonville, most people within the intensification zone don't use a car to get to work: you can see that to some extent in some maps I did a while go, and I'll post a combined map soon to make the connection more explicit. Allowing more people to live in that area, where the current residents evidently find it easy to walk to either the station, bus stop or directly to work, should indeed encourage a walkable community, at least for commuting.


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