As Tāmaki Makaurau continues to grow and evolve, urban design experts say our historic approach to intensification could use a slight reset. Ben Fahy learns why.
In the retail world, “anchor tenants” are typically big-name brands that tend to attract other smaller businesses to that location. But in Wynyard Quarter, Sue Evans says “the anchor tenant was a playground”.
An experienced urban designer and academic, Evans was involved with the area’s regeneration in her previous role with Auckland Council – and as she explains it, the design process was a surprisingly simple one. “We created the spine from Te Wero Island across the lifting bridge, and down the promenade. And we put that playground in.”
Some expected it to be a slow burn, but as families started to visit the area, “food and beverage went off”, developers saw more potential for apartments, offices and retail, and the flywheel started to spin.
“Whether it’s a playground, a skatepark or a seat that’s well placed, if you put it there and it’s good, people will use it,” Evans says. “You can’t create a community with bricks and mortar, but you can create the conditions for communities to flourish.”
We built this city
Cities are complex organisms: multiple competing interests, and multiple layers of infrastructure, transport, buildings, history, culture, geology and context all stirred up into a broth of humanity. It’s the energy – and efficiency – of co-location that has attracted humans to cities for centuries. And recognising all those different interests and ensuring there’s a cohesive approach for towns and cities to function well for as many people as possible is where the discipline of urban design comes in.
“People say that urban design is subjective, but I think everybody who lives in cities and towns knows how they feel in places that work well or where they feel the urban design is bad,” says Evans. “You notice it when it’s annoying, or when it makes us feel unsafe. But we often don’t notice things when they’ve been well-designed.”
Lisa Dunshea, Auckland Council’s manager of urban design, arrived in Auckland around 10 years ago as “a girl from Northumberland with a passion for design and the environment”. She and her family now live in Stonefields – an area specifically designed to create connections.
“You can step out on a street and feel safe and the children can play; when I walk around with our dog, we bump into neighbours. And that sense of community is quite intentional. It feels secure, you see movement, and the streets are tree-lined.”
And for her, this is what good urban design is all about. “It’s about functionality, it’s also about aesthetics, but it’s primarily about people. How people move, live in and use a city … Being human is about that social contact. And a well-designed place or building can aid that interaction and that gives you a sense of wellbeing. You feel like you’re a part of something and that’s really important.”
Dunshea grew up near the River Tyne and says she feels most at home in Auckland when she’s close to the Tāmaki Estuary. Being there reminds her of her roots, but the connection to this place on the other side of the world has helped her create new roots here in Aotearoa.
“I go cycling and walking quite a lot and that connection with the water is really strong for me. Tāmaki Estuary is one of the first places that Māori settled and sometimes I reflect and think what it would have been like for people to arrive and see this abundant estuary. I think about how lucky I am to be a tiny part of that story.”
There will be many more stories like Dunshea’s in the future. Auckland’s population is predicted to reach 2.4 million by 2050 – that means “we’re all going to be living a bit closer to one another,” she says.
Auckland Council has worked closely with Kāinga Ora and other central government agencies on a number of major redevelopments in Northcote, Owairaka, Mt Roskill and Māngere, and while one of the obvious goals is to support more safe, warm, dry homes, these developments can be seen as a microcosm of the city and are also about creating a sense of community.
As part of Kāinga Ora’s Māngere development, for example, Evans says there is a community room, outdoor space, a playground, picnic tables, a pump track and fruit trees.
“For that community, it lets them connect with each other and, over time, they can form relationships through their kids or through events,” says Evans.
Dunshea says there were big increases in the usage of public parks during Covid restrictions, but public assets are not always equitably distributed across the city.
“It’s about making sure that what we do is proportionate,” Dunshea says. “There’s a focus on areas that need to be transformed and will benefit from good urban design. Certain parts of the city are already off and running, and other areas really need our help.”
Not just buildings
One of the immutable laws of urban design is that when you increase the amount of density, you need to increase the amount of public amenity, says Andre de Graaf, a director at Isthmus Group.
De Graaf says there is a perception that urban design is all about buildings. Most buildings are private and “80% of the city has already been built”, he says, so for him urban design is about how we interact with those buildings and the importance of “the arteries” that take us between them.
He thinks Auckland has spent the last decade undoing the damage of density done wrong in the form of poor quality developments built in the early 2000s. And Dunshea points to the old “shoebox apartments” of 20 years ago – the ugly concrete towers with small, often studio sized dwellings – to illustrate why some negative perceptions about intensification remain.
“When something looks out of place, people’s eyes are drawn to it more,” says Dunshea. “Especially when you tend to be the first cab off the rank … But cities have constantly changed and morphed and transformed and the fact that they’re changing is exciting. A city that’s growing is far better than a city that’s contracting.”
In with the new
While there is ongoing discussion about the way some suburbs with character protections for older types of housing will be treated and what kinds of houses can be built there, Dunshea says the city is trying to strike a balance between protecting the older character qualities in some areas while also providing more housing options in places accessible to large urban centres and public transport which will allow more people to live closer to work, shops, schools and entertainment and other services.
“We get one chance at developing the city we want. So if we get it right now it will benefit several generations. Once the buildings are there, they tend to be there for a long time.”
Many developers are now focused on providing good quality apartments, while an increasing number of buyers and renters are willing to change the way they live and give up things like big lawns or car parks. This is partly because of the high prices for standalone homes creating demands for more affordable housing, but Dunshea says a lot of Aucklanders have also lived overseas and know that higher-density living can work. And de Graaf believes that there is an element of the minority loudly voicing a negative opinion about the intensification of the city, while the majority of those who favour more housing options and better active and public transport don’t feel the need to express their support.
Evans says it’s understandable that some will be concerned about losing something they love, but Auckland simply can’t keep spreading out over our productive land and we also need to take steps to reduce our carbon emissions by getting out of cars. Her ultimate dream is for Auckland to become a 15-minute city, where every resident’s basic needs can be met with a short cycle or walk.
“It can take 3 hours to drive across Auckland on a bad day. Is that what we want? Do we want to be like Los Angeles?”
Upping the ante
Auckland Council attempts to ensure that the quality of new developments remains high in a few different ways. Some of the best examples are included in the Auckland Design Manual, which is used to show developers – both large-scale and those new to the game – what good urban design looks like.
The Auckland Urban Design Panels are another method used to incentivise good design. Dunshea says it generally kicks into gear for the larger, more complex developments, where the public and private realm are likely to intersect. 55 independent panel members who have experience in different areas are brought in to make suggestions that will improve the quality of the buildings and the residents’ experience of living in them.
“We’re here at the council providing help and assistance, working with our colleagues in the private sector to get the best out of the city’s growth. We actively suggest design changes in initial meetings with developers about their plans for development. We’ll get the tracing paper out and do some sketching around the table. And some developers are open to that. We help them with the process and we also bring a couple of examples to the table.”
It’s a carrot rather than stick approach, she says; recommended rather than an essential. And while the council can’t strictly enforce design standards, Dunshea is confident that their advice is finding a willing audience. “There’s a real thirst for getting intensification right in Auckland among a lot of developers.”
With government changes to allow for more three-storey housing across most Auckland suburbs also on the horizon, Auckland Council is looking to set up a new medium density design review panel to help developers that may not have quite as much experience with developments of that size who need some extra support and guidance.
One of the main goals is to be consistent, Dunshea says, so the review panel would focus on everything from ensuring buildings are functional, that they’re facing the right way for solar gain, that they consider the privacy of neighbouring properties and that they fit the context of their neighbourhood and surrounding area.
Auckland Council’s Ngā Aho Māori Design panel professionals and the Te Aranga Māori Design principles offer cultural guidance, which Dunshea says are increasingly integrated into public spaces and also larger developments.
The council also offers universal design experts to ensure public and private developments are accessible to everyone, whether old, young or disabled. It’s about making places that are enjoyable and functional for all people.
Of this place
De Graaf thinks the city has come a very long way in the past few years, and that urban design has vastly improved from what it was, both in terms of public and private developments. But there’s still much more that could be done.
It’s appealing to look overseas for guidance, and there are plenty of good examples to follow (to pick one, more cycling infrastructure like that seen in Europe, which will facilitate more density and help decrease our carbon emissions). But de Graaf believes it’s crucial that we focus on our unique place in the Pacific.
“Every bit of urban form and public space are richer for having wider conversations with our Pacific and Māori communities. It keeps us unique and it’s what makes Auckland special. We need to understand the cultural make-up and understand the links to our seagoing history and nation and our respect for the land. We’re further down the road on this than a lot of other countries.”
De Graaf believes public infrastructure like transport connections, parks and playgrounds also needs to come before housing. Overseas, new bus or train lines are often established first and councils are increasingly offering density bonuses to developers that commit to offering more affordable homes.
Auckland Light Rail, for example, is not just a transport project. “It’s all about city regeneration and how we can unlock a huge amount of density in that corridor.”
The complexity of a city and all those competing interests can sometimes feel overwhelming. As the famous urbanist Jane Jacobs said, “designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.”
But Dunshea has a simple analogy for it: the “honey-pot effect”. More high-density housing and better transport options means more people. That leads to more economic activity and more urban vibrancy. And there’s not a shoebox in sight.