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

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Waterfront fatigue

No doubt many of you have had your fill of waterfront posts, but there was a slew of ill-informed letters to the editor in today's Dominion Post that I felt compelled to reply to. There are too many specific errors and misinterpretations to fit into in a 200-word rant, and I thought I'd try to tone down some of my usual vitriol, so I tried to offer a constructive discussion of why good public space design is more subtle and complex than just leaving as much empty space as possible. I'll reproduce the letter below, but first a couple of specific responses that I couldn't fit in.

One correspondent opined that people who currently like the waterfront would not "feel the same once they realised they'd be sitting in front of four- to six-storey buildings, most of mirrored glass, looking directly on to where they were planning to relax". I'm not sure where he gets the mirror glass from, but here are some shots of people who somehow managed to relax despite the oppressive presence of buildings.

Relaxing at Wharf Plaza
Promenade beside Chaffers Dock
Relaxing at Kumutoto PlazaIt's worth noting that in each of these, not all of the ground floor space had yet opened to the public. Once the public space improvements and active edges are complete, these spaces will only get more popular.

Another writer says "Why the park requires updating is a mystery. The 'designs' [love the scare quotes!] depicted are hideous, with hardly any green space able to be used by the public". I'd say that the park requires updating because it's outdated, decrepit and not suited to the 21st Century, but if I said that I wouldn't be able to resist saying that those are the qualities that Waterfront Watch personally relate to. As for "hardly any green space", has this person even looked at the wide expanses of grass in the plans for Options B or D? Compared to a current aerial photo, there's little or any loss of openness, and while the others have less obvious lawn area, there's much more in the way of sheltered and varied recreational spaces. Anyway, despite my weariness over these arguments, here is my polite and measured reply.
One problem with debate about the waterfront is the use of simplistic assumptions rather than actual observations of how people use urban space. The quality of the public realm is not measured in square metres, but through a whole range of qualities relating to subjective experience, comfort, design quality and human interaction. For instance, people tend to congregate around the edges of spaces rather than heading for the centre, so that breaking down a space into a variety of intimate, sheltered places can provide more opportunities for public enjoyment than if it had been left as a featureless field.

There's also an assumption that commercial and residential activity has to be at the expense of recreation, when in reality they can enhance one another and create new interactions. Some also believe that it's best to have panoramic views from everywhere, whereas creating sequences of open and framed views leads to a much more interesting and varied urban experience. And an urban experience is exactly what the CBD waterfront should be: compact, complex and lively, rather than a simulacrum of outer suburbia.


At 9:20 pm, November 07, 2007, Blogger Rich said...

Where I used to work in London the ground level units were mostly pubs and on sunny summer days (yes, they do have them occasionally) the squares and plazas would fill up with drinkers.

Be illegal in NZ though.

At 12:26 am, November 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't normally like to slap labels, but the sort of people you've mentioned in your post are so irritating, I've come up with a label for them - the "Quarter-Acre Cartel". Just as business cartels conspire to fix prices of goods & services at everyone else's expense, the QuAC conspires to fix property prices and green space at everyone else's expense.

They range from Great Leap Backward-ists (including some, but not all, in Waterfront Watch) to Hummer-bonking McMansionites.

Although the above are diametrically opposed politically, they share a lot of things in common, including a disdain of mixed-use development. I've much more to delve into, but that's for another post.

At 8:42 am, November 08, 2007, Blogger Evad Rehtona said...

Good stuff but I wonder if the ComPost will print it? It's hardly an organ that fosters considered opinion. It's more the baying of the mob.

At 10:16 am, November 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good response Tom, and admirably restrained. I think though to get it published you will need to be shorter and less constructive. And perhaps you could let your grammar deteriorate along with the quality of your argument?

At 5:23 pm, November 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps your sample images should be back to back with images of the open space occupation on those same days - apoint that you have raised elsewhere...

At 8:57 pm, November 08, 2007, Blogger stephen said...

Tom, have you thought about offering the DomPost the opportunity to have you as a columnist?


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