(Re)Shaping our Urban Environments - Part 1
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
A little over a month ago I had the opportunity and privilege to present at the “2019 Spatial and Survey Conference” about how our urban spaces are evolving to be more pedestrian-focused, green, liveable and safer places for all. Following that presentation and another previous presentation that I did at the Urbanism NZ Conference in Wellington last year, quite a few people have asked that I put my thoughts down in a series of articles to add to the urban discourse we are currently having in New Zealand. This is hopefully the first a series of articles it intend to write on regular basis (monthly I hope), based on the experience I have gained through the work and projects that I have been involved in.
Although this article and subsequent articles are focused on Auckland, the issues and solutions discussed are not limited to Auckland, as almost every other metropolitan centre across New Zealand are in some way going through a similar transition in shaping and re-shaping their urban environments.
The first topic that I would like to talk about and can only really just scratch the surface of in a short space is how our movement corridors are changing. Specifically how our Roads are transforming into complete Streets and how the design of these Streets is affecting/informing our urban spaces and vice versa.
So, what is a Street and how is it different from a Road. There is a tonne of literature that discusses and describes the difference between the two. I like to use this illustration by Strong Towns which visually demonstrates the difference. On the left, we have a typical Road with homes and business located along its length, and as vehicle volumes and speeds are reduced (middle and right), other connections and interactions are steadily increased and achieved.
From this I have come up with my simple definition of a Road and Street;
a Road is the preferential and efficient movement of vehicles,
a Street is about maximising mobility, connectivity and placemaking at the same time.
Both have a purpose; however, we have either deliberately and/or unintentional over the previous century applied only the former of these solutions to all most all our urban movement corridors. Consequentially this has created various issues as demonstrated in the Strong Towns Illustration. In Auckland and most other centres over the last decade or two, we have recognised this error and have set out to re-balance the scales to reflect how people want to inhabit, engage with and move through their urban environments.
In Auckland, one of the most recognisable of these re-balances has been the shared Street programme. Several Roads within the CBD were transformed from car-dominated spaces to a more pedestrian focused environment. These spaces did not exclude vehicles, however, they neither prioritised them. These spaces are more ambiguous but safer for pedestrians to move along and across without hesitation, enabling more connections and interactions. The benefits were measured, and the results were phenomenal for retailers and business located along these spaces. Fort St experienced a 140% increase in foot traffic and there was an amazing 439% increase in hospitality activity (source Auckland Transport).
However, achieving this outcome has been difficult, and when you move outside the city centre, the challenge is greater still. With Street-based solutions often suffering when it encounters standard engineering compliance, siloed Council organisations, personal agendas, misinformed public, and overly idealistic designers, to name a few. The reality is, the coal face of urbanism is quite different from the largely positive and enabling area of policy and strategy. Innovative, truly integrated solutions are hard won, through lengthy negotiations, with often different outcomes to those envisaged at the higher level
To understand the process and challenges you will encounter in getting just a Resource Consent for your Street, I have a handy child-friendly flow diagram.
Even before considering any technical solutions to create a Street, you are already starting out with one arm tied behind your back. The process is never the same twice and is heavily weighted towards engineering or engineers, who can often short circuit the process, which almost always delivers a Road and not a Street. This is a century-long legacy issue which is taking time to resolve.
But time is running out, and some will say we have already run out, as we increase the density of our new and existing built environments to better meet the needs that people have today and will have in the future.
A clear example has been the Hobsonville Point development by HLC. This development has shown what is possible when we focus on a more equitable movement network. Streets are narrower and often interrupted with trees and other amenity and placemaking elements, promoting slower vehicle speeds instead of relying of posted signs or paint. Rear lanes have also been used to remove excessive and dangerous driveway crossings and to create a more attractive and pleasant Street environment. But even within Hobsonville, there are lessons to be learned that will improve our Streets and neighbourhoods as we move forward.
For example, there has been great emphasis placed on the treatment of the rear laneways (a form of Street) within Hobsonville, by making them slow speed, more human-scaled environments that kids can play in. Even with these positive interventions, you can't get away from the fact they are principally large driveways, determined through engineering standards, to enable drivers of the largest SUV to make no more than a convenient 3 point turn and not 4 in and out of their garage or parking space.
The scale of this issue alone becomes more apparent when you start to consider an entire neighbourhood and look at the space we give over to cars and vehicles by way of Roads and lanes versus that which we give over to homes or spaces for living. Adding rear lanes to solve one problem affecting our Streets appears to have unintentionally caused another and reduced the re-balancing that we were trying to achieve. It is something we need to give more thought to, especially within a highly permeable and small urban block development like that in Hobsonville.
To be clear, this is not a problem generated by the density achieved within Hobsonville, nor is it unique to Hobsonville. Instead, it is a problem in providing a comfortable bed for our car next to our own. This is something that a lot of developers are catching onto and are analysing the benefits that can be achieved both in terms of yield and amenity increases across their proposals. They are actively looking to international solutions that have proven to work.
Solutions include doing away with rear lanes altogether and creating only slow speed narrow Roads that have limited driveways, on street parking, and everything else in one complex but beautiful place, much like the Woonerf Roads in the Netherlands. Interestingly solutions based on this concept are now appearing in new development blocks in Hobsonville.
Here the architects went, you know what, you can have your car, but you can’t park it on your section or next to your home. You must park a short walk away on a Ring Road, and everything in between, connecting these homes shall be pedestrian scale, intimate Streets, that will serve as additional living space. A lot of urban designers (in NZ), when presented with this layout, will say this urban block is too large (120m x 180m) and not permeable enough and would insist on conventional Roads that break the block up approximately where I have shown the dimension lines.
However, when you consider the pedestrian network, this development is a highly connected neighbourhood. And when you consider how the residents talk about these spaces as Streets, not alleyways, pedestrian accessways or walkways but Streets you begin to appreciate just how much we have relied on vehicles to define our urban spaces. This approach is also not unique to this development. The Dutch (and I’m sure there are examples in other countries) appear to have embraced vehicle less Streets in other areas.
And before you say I’m nuts to call a walkway a Street, remember as I suggested earlier a Street is about mobility, connections and place at the same time. Therefore pedestrian and cycle mobility fit within that criteria. This is something we in New Zealand and especially Auckland will have to grapple with sooner than we expect. That a movement corridor does not require the presence of a vehicle to be a considered a movement corridor, nor is it needed to create a sense of place.
As we are slowly being acclimatised to living without a car through apartment developments such as Daisy in Mount Eden and Re-thinking space in Panmure. It will be interesting to see how our local and national transport bodies (Auckland Transport and NZTA) adapt to this shift. They will need to move fast as there are several developers actively pursuing not only building more car free apartments but large-scale terrace developments without any cars or Roads but with extensive cycling and pedestrian-scaled Streets which is a significant level of change, we will have to get used to.
It is a lot closer to reality than we may think as well. Recently The Paddington development in Wellington successfully gained consent for a mixed terrace development with no roads, vehicle lanes or cars, only pedestrian and cycleways (aka Streets). This has bolstered a client I’m currently working with, whom is trying to do the same in Auckland. If we are successful, they will roll out this model across several sites in brown and grey-field locations across Auckland, close to transit, over the next couple of years, dramatically shifting the way we perceive urban development and living in our urban centres, possibly resulting in something not unlike this street as envisaged at Marmalade lane development in Cambridge UK.