Urban designer Ben van Bruggen spoke to Jeremy Hansen about why we should stop listening to the vocal minority attempting to block change, and be inspired about Auckland’s development.
WH Auden once said “we would rather be ruined than changed”. It’s a quote urban designer Ben van Bruggen refers to when I ask him about how we might change the minds of Auckland’s legions of NIMBYs, opposed as they are to increased density, e-scooters, cycle lanes, and anything else that represents a new way of approaching urban problems. But van Bruggen, the manager of Auckland’s urban design strategy at Auckland Council, says he isn’t going to expend a lot of energy in trying to change these people’s minds. “They are the vocal minority,” he says. “There are a group of people who actually want change but they’re not as vocal or not as demanding, because they may not have seen or been told the stories of what that future might look like. We should appeal to them.”
Van Bruggen is an optimist in a job where optimism is most certainly required. Auckland is in the midst of some acute growing pains, with a burgeoning population putting huge pressure on housing and transport infrastructure in particular. Van Bruggen isn’t daunted by this. In fact, he is so excited about Auckland’s potential that he moved here with his family from the UK in 2017. “I was just captivated by what Ludo [Campbell-Reid, Design Champion at Auckland Council] and his colleagues were saying about Auckland and where it was going. [There was] a discourse around what design meant in a place like this. As an urbanist you don’t get that many opportunities to have a city-wide perspective on what you’re doing. Auckland is small enough to understand, but big enough to matter.”
That said, the city faces challenges on multiple fronts. The population is growing by about 2.6 percent each year which, van Bruggen says, is “a lot to be contending with” for any developed nation. In the 1950s Auckland had a terrific tram system with one of the world’s highest rates of ridership, while nowadays some people (looking at you, Judith Collins) are still resisting a single light rail line down Dominion Road and through Māngere to the airport. The road toll is abysmal, and everyone knows we’re in the midst of a severe housing crisis. Still, van Bruggen’s optimism remains.
On housing: “The global finance approach to housing as commodity exists, so we have a housing crisis,” van Bruggen says. Auckland Council is already acting, he adds, as the planning regime allows for a million homes to be built within the city limits right now. So why do we have a crisis still? “We’ve given over much of our housing development to the private sector … they focus on a very narrow bit of the market. If we perhaps take more of a lead from Germany or Holland, where the public sector has a much higher role in enabling people to build for themselves – and it enables a rental market in high-quality renting and secure tenancy. Generally the government [there] owns the land and doesn’t sell it off … it takes a long-term estate management role in the city.”
Urban design has, rightly, been sometimes criticised as a way of gussying up Instagram-friendly parts of a city for tourists and affluent residents while ignoring the needs of people who live outside these zones. Van Bruggen is concerned about equity too. He says it is essential that a city has a vibrant centre – indeed, central Auckland is now one of the fastest-growing residential communities in the country – but adds that it’s also vital to create the ability for residents to undertake most of their daily routines on foot or bicycle in their local areas. One of the problems Auckland now faces is how car-based sprawl has created inequity: the city’s cheapest houses are usually furthest from the centre and also from public transport hubs, which means the poor bear an outsize burden of long commutes and consequent lower productivity and time in which families are apart. The solution, he says, lies partly in transport-oriented development, where suburban shopping and residential hubs are clustered around transit stations, making access easier for everyone.
There’s also the magic good urban design brings to a city, a feel-good factor that van Bruggen says can communicate the city’s essential values. He’s a huge advocate for inclusive cities, not only for the less able-bodied, but places that include indigenous design values in every urban design project they create. The focus on Māori design values at Auckland Council has come as a pleasant surprise to this UK transplant. “I have the privilege of working with some of the Māori designers in our team … it is interesting the way we’re looking at approaching projects, the way we are thinking about incorporating Māori culture and identity into the urban design of the city and not just applying a piece of art or sculpture. It’s about involvement and engagement with mana whenua and developing stories that we’ll all be able to feel proud of and share.”
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Cities change radically, and quickly, when their citizens want them to. Van Bruggen cites the example of The Netherlands – in this case, a whole country – where a high number of children being killed on the roads in the 1970s led to an uprising demanding safe routes to schools. This started a movement of building cycle routes which has become unstoppable – nobody even questions the need for cycle lanes there any more, and now The Netherlands is not only one of the fittest nations on the planet, but also one of the happiest. Auckland, please take note.
Above all, van Bruggen thinks of successful cities as places where people enjoy being together – which is a very nice design objective to have. “It doesn’t have to be new, it doesn’t have to be polished, it doesn’t have to be shiny,” he says. “We will often gather in places where there are lots of other people gathering as well, in cities in particular. And those in themselves become successful places – places to sit and watch what’s going on, to feel safe. There’s a realisation or maturing of [Auckland]. One of the great things about Auckland, and one of the things that excites me, is that innovation and experimentation are not only accepted, they’re encouraged.”