Urban Letter from New Zealand - November 2014

Former UDG Chair Duncan Ecob writes about his continuing experience of living and working in New Zealand

I have now been in the land of the long white cloud for one year and am thoroughly enjoying it. There is much of interest to the Urbanist in me with a focus on Auckland. Whilst Christchurch rebuilds after the trauma of the 2010/11 earthquake, Auckland is responding to economic growth and has a planned expansion to 2 million people by 2040, up by 60% from today.

The expansion offers many challenges related to current ways of thinking and the culture of towns and cities in NZ. Whilst on a par with the size of the UK the population is a fraction of that at 4.5million and the infrastructure, taken for granted through Europe and US, is barely emerging. City to City journeys are either by car or for the further journeys by plane.. The electricity power providers for Auckland recently said that Aucklanders should consider power outages (cuts) as a way of life. Something I though was rather third worldly

But let's focus on the positives. Urban Design is a real issue here in Auckland that connects with the people on the street. There is a Unitary Plan out for approval after two rounds of consultation and the man in the street is aware of it and many of the issue it is trying to address with new thinking.  Intensification of the city, not sprawl, is its key message, although the perception of high density is 30 units per hectare, though for Europe this would be a medium low density. The city itself has undergone a transformation with new public realm projects creating a network of shared spaces to be enjoyed by pedestrians and cyclist rather than the main streets that are dominated by cars.  There are a number of large construction projects both private and public (Waterfront Auckland  http://www.waterfrontauckland.co.nz/waterfront-auckland/home/)and the city is forging ahead with train electrification and a new rail system to push the change to public transport (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Rail_Link)

The council runs a series of lectures, Auckland Conversations

which have some important speakers on urban issues such as 

Jeanette Sadik-Kahn the New York head of transport 

or the must see Tony Seba on Disruptive Technologies 

These events are attended by hundreds of people (up to 700) and are must for those that will be part of the 'new' city. 

Smaller events are commonplace and run by a variety of groups, the Urban Design Forum (http://urbandesignforum.org.nz/) , the NZ Institute of Architects, Landscape Architects, Urban Auckland, University of Auckland to name a few.   

There is a network of professionals in the city and passions can run high around urban design.  There are as many silos here as in any other country related to where Urban Design sits and even the term is being misused for Public Realm design by some key leaders. It is good to be part of this conversation, trying to persuade an Architect that Engineers are as important to urban design as the people that want to create beautiful buildings is as entertaining here as it was in the UK


One of the big success stories in delivering quality developments is Hobbsonville Point.   


A special development body was created between Auckland Council, New Zealand Housing and a private partner AV Jennings.   They are delivering a paradigm shift in housing with 2 storey energy efficient homes on smaller (by NZ standards) lots.  They have a burgeoning community, two new schools and are developing their retail and employment offer.  Whilst the UK has procrastinated over development of this size (3000 homes)  NZ has been brave enough to take the plunge and it is paying dividends.  This is a must see for anybody that considers themselves to be an urban designer.