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

Monday, October 08, 2007

IntensCITY notes: Wellington in 2040

Here's my brief write-up of the last IntensCITY lunchtime talk, Wellington in 2040: A summary of ideas. As the name suggests, it was the result of a wide-ranging and informal discussion between some of the design professionals who'd been involved in the week, and there was far too much for me to cover in one post, so after a general introduction I'll concentrate on the two main subjects: the street network and the open space network. I should stress that these were brainstorming sessions intended to provoke inspiration and debate, and don't necessarily represent any stage of council policy (more's the pity, in some cases). Also, my apologies for the poor quality of my snapshots: I hope to get the originals shortly.

At the beginning, there was a quick summary of Wellington's good and bad points from an urban design perspective. We've got a walkable, compact centre, with good street life, active edges and well-integrated public art; all of which contributes to a sense of belonging. The presence of street trees and some recent footpath widening were also mentioned, though I tend to think that we could do with a lot more of both, and there have been some unfortunate examples where footpaths have been sacrificed to vehicular needs.

On the downside, our central city streets are still dominated by vehicles and cluttered with inconsistent and often superfluous fixtures. This lack of coordination and uniformity was a common theme: poor direction of Te Aro growth, the lack of a cohesive strategy on heritage and character, and not enough celebration of our "capital function". I'm all for variety in architectural styles, but I'd agree that lack of uniformity is one thing that mars our streetscape. Some of this was put down to too much of a 'vertical' silo mentality among planners and the high priority given to engineering (especially road engineering) over design.

Public space at Wharf PlazaIn all of this, there are lessons to be learned from the current waterfront development process, which despite all the squealing from some quarters, is gradually delivering some high quality public space and some of the best recent architecture in Wellington. Everything starts from a framework that was developed through a public process; it has a vision, principles and objectives; there are design reviews and site-specific briefs; and selection and control of the designers and other participants.

Of course, that's all possible because it's council-controlled land, and there are a lot of legal and political barriers to implementing a similar process on a mixture of private and public property, though something similar seems to have delivered great results in Melbourne. But let's imagine for a moment that society as a whole were able to put the quality of the public realm ahead of the absolute sovereignty of private property rights, and that Wellington had a city-wide framework for urban planning and design up to the year 2040: what sort of vision, principles, process and objectives might such a framework include? That's what the workshops had addressed, and here are some of their thoughts abut the street and open space networks.

Wellington 2040 workshops: street networkThe key objective and greatest challenge for the street network plan is to balance the needs of private vehicles, public transport and pedestrians. Partly, that boils down to a conflict between street as thoroughfare vs streets a destination (something that I've previously characterised as the difference between roads and streets), and finding the appropriate balance for each street in the central city. The street network can be analysed according to two dimensions: speed and orientation. Some streets should be primarily about movement, while others should be "slow" streets with an emphasis on amenities and pedestrian experience. Orientation breaks down into three categories: east/west, north/south, and those that follow the "natural spine" of past and present waterfronts. I'll write some more about my own thoughts on these distinctions, but for the moment here are some of the specific street network priorities identified by the workshops:
  • Greater priority to links between waterfront and golden mile, including celebrating the escarpment (now The Terrace)
  • Kent/Cambridge Tce as Wellington's boulevard
  • Ceremonial approaches to Memorial Park
  • Bowen St/Whitmore St/Whitmore Pl
  • Lambton Quay/Thorndon Quay - "shoreline connection", pedestrian spine
  • Clearer policy on identity of Golden Mile
  • Review of Cable St/Wakefield St and intervening blocks
Objectives for the open space plan included conducting an "open space audit" to assess the demand, distribution and quality of open spaces. I've attempted my own version of that, by mapping population increases in the context of distance from green space, though without much assessment of quality and some fairly simplistic assumptions about demand. It's necessary prerequisite before planning an open space network, and working out what people actually want from public spaces in different parts of the city can make a huge difference: to my mind, Cuba Mall is the best "open space" in the city, but other parts of town may need different types of space.

Wellington 2040 workshops: ideas overviewWhile it was suggested that we should look after what we've got to avoid spreading resources too thinly, I'd suggest that sometimes "what we've got" is just in the wrong place to make a good public space (Glover Park spring to mind) or in areas already well-served with open spaces (Jack Illot Green, the former Justice Park and most of the waterfront), and the city needs to take bold steps to ensure that districts with a poor public realm (such as SoCo) are looked after. One approach that might help would be to partially finance public space improvements through as "tax increment" based on the increased value of adjacent private property: it's an idea that has a lot of merit, but I can't see it going down well in certain sectors of the property industry.

The specific priorities for the open space plan were:
  • Better performance of Civic Square
  • Back of Parliament as new open space
  • Open space amenity issue for centre of Te Aro
  • Tory St/Cuba St pedestrian routes: lanes or pocket parks of sunny, sheltered open space
  • Allenby Tce/Terrace gardens: "lost city" initiative
  • Te Papa's Bush City reconsidered
  • A Te Aro Town Belt extension: Mt Vic to Brooklyn Hill (including Basin Reserve)
Of those, I'd say that the Te Aro open space and amenity issues could be addressed in tandem with the "lanes or pocket parks" one. Formalising the current quasi-public pedestrian routes through the large Te Aro blocks could be a step towards Melbourne-style laneways, and a network of lanes, pedestrian streets, courtyards and sheltered, sunny corners could do just as much good as an actual "park" in that part of town. There wasn't much elaboration on the "lost city initiative", but it involved making more of the network of walkways and spaces around the tucked-away Terrace Gardens area. I didn't get the impression that the "Town Belt extension" involved actually ripping up existing city streets: it may just be about creating a belt of street trees, pocket parks and other foliage between St Mark's School, the Basin Reserve, the Massey University grounds and up to Nairn St Park. The biggest gap in that area, around Taranaki, Hopper and Hankey streets, could certainly do with a bit of greening.


Post a Comment

<< Home