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July 28, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Pedestrian City: The Future of Wellington

Pritzker Prize Winner 2007 Richard Rogers: “My view of sustainable architecture is essentially the humanizing of the built environment”.
The phrase sounds like a tag-team of contemporary buzzwords, and it’s not a surprise that for many of us, ‘sustainable urban design’ seems like a corporate-speak utopia. Nonetheless, what lies beneath the rhetoric is a cache of innovation, lateral thinking and a growing will to challenge traditional ideas about how best to tackle the various concerns surrounding future urban environments. It is an integral part of the growing movement to curb our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce the impact of modern living.

Sustainable Urban Design

So far, so 2004. City councils in New Zealand – Wellington included – have been discussing all of this way before An Inconvenient Truth supposedly helped the masses to see the (solar-powered) light about changing our ways. In 2004 the WCC commissioned a report from renowned Danish architect Jan Gehl, who helped to make Melbourne the functional, hipsterfilled metropolis that it is today thanks to some simple ideas. After studying the pedestrian flows and general day-to-day meanders of the populace, he had this to say about Wellington’s high-points and failures:

Traditionally, the priority order of urban planning was Buildings- Space-Life: what we need is to turn this on its head, so that Life takes priority.

Public space should be designed to facilitate people meeting each other, not staying apart: this is true for all facets of city life, including business culture and education. We should treat pedestrian movements in the same way that traffic engineers treat traffic counts. In New Zealand, people giving way to cars is embedded in the law (the road code) – Wellington seems to be a city where ‘car is king’ – curious for a town that prides itself on its supposed inner-city walkability and the cultural density of ‘downtown’.

Some streets even suffer from a layout that could be described as urban motorways, for example Jervois Quay and Kent Terrace- Cambridge Terrace: much could be improved by turning these areas into city boulevards and imposing more stringent speed limits.

Students should be encouraged to make use of and live within the city centre, as they “use squares and park extensively and contribute valuably to diverse public life”.

Gehl’s emphasis is on making cities more usable for their inhabitants, and more pleasurable. It’s a concern that goes hand in hand with improving a city’s functionality, especially considering that a pedestrian friendly city, architecturally speaking, is more likely to reduce car traffic into and around the centre. A well designed and pleasurable city centre is also more likely to entice inner-city inhabitants, who in turn help enforce the prioritisation of Life.

Many of Gehl’s recommendations have been taken on board by the Wellington City Council, including significant amounts of work done on integrating the waterfront and the rest of the city. Residential intensification too, has obviously taken priority within the city centre. Wellington’s Urban Development Strategy puts particular emphasis on the ‘growth corridors’ of Adelaide Rd and Johnsonville, which combine proximity to the inner city with as-yet unexploited residential potential. The kind of development that they are keen to see happening here is high-density residences, which ideally will make the best use of available space.

All these optimistic projections aside, what I want to know is: who will these new residents be? The Urban Development Strategy notes that Wellington’s population is ageing, households are getting smaller and the city is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. All these factors contribute to the undeniable demand for higher density housing, preferably close to the city centre. Any casual meander through the ongoing apartment and townhouse style developments around town will soon prove that many of these new pads share the common characteristic of being notably upmarket. I often wonder how developers can be so sure that all the space will be filled? An ageing populace doesn’t suggest a boom in surplus capital to be spent on rent or mortgages, and neither does the euphemistic statistic of ‘ethnic diversity’. What these factors suggest is the potential for a more dynamic and interesting inner-city community, but not without considering how small families living in an economic recession can afford to make the leap from the ‘burbs. If we are to take the recommendations of an award-winning architect to heart (and we should) then Wellington should also be encouraging students to reside in the city centre so as to contribute to the vibe of a city as only students can. Few current Victoria or Massey students will need to be reminded of the absurd costs of living centrally, not to mention the likely payoffs of decent sunlight, heating and space.

Large city initiatives in Europe have contributed a great deal to the literature and innovation around improving inner city living and better-integrated metropolises. These projects, however, tend to be focused on rejuvenating decaying areas and re-designing old slums or junk yards. New Zealand in general doesn’t have an inner city industrial legacy, thus most of our work in this department relies on creating new structures in the available spaces. This is an expensive business, and Neil Gray, an urban design consultant, believes that the council is unable to levy sufficient taxes to make these buildings happen – “the magnitude of public work required is beyond the local body”. Hence the reliance on developer initiatives that the Urban Development Strategy takes as given. This poses some interesting questions about the nature of future development and how higher density living can be achieved in conjunction with excellent public amenities, bearing in mind that it must be commercially viable. Developers are by nature bound by cost and liability concerns, so there appears to be something of an impasse between those who must provide an impetus for creative thinking, and those who can make it happen.

If ever there was need for some practical and imaginative work to be done, it would be here and now. Thankfully, it seems we can often rely on architecture students and recent graduates to think outside the proverbial square…

(No, I am not in the pocket of some kind of underground archcartel. Neither am I an architecture student myself. I can’t help it if they fascinate me and seem capable of both thinking up harebrained schemes and seeing them through…)

The Sustainable Habit Challenge (SHaC09) is a national collaborative project for teams around New Zealand to design, develop, and build sustainable housing in their local community. Nine teams from tertiary institutes around the country are joining with industry professionals and communities to design and create a sustainable habit. It may sound like another idealistic thought project on how we could improve the quality of inner city living, if only we had the time, money, interest, impetus . . . . the list goes on.

Thankfully this project is firmly based on achievable goals. Wellington’s entry, THE PLANT ROOM, is based on creating a multi-tasking regenerative habitat that generates energy, collects water, recycles waste and grows food – in effect, all the things that normally would require a move to the country or an expensive plot in suburbia. It uses ‘living’ and eco-system services to improve the existing building fabric – living roofing, grey water filtering and rainwater harvesting. Communal spaces are also part of the brief, which serve a social function as well as providing additional space for planting and food production. A series of inter-connected “node” sites around Wellington city will hopefully start to pop up as early as January 2009, leading up to the final show apartment. These are to be used to communicate sustainable technologies in bite-sized chunks of separated information, drawing on the particular strengths (i.e. wind power, solar power, rainwater collection) of the site.

Crucially, the project deals with existing building stock, and provides some fascinating insight into what inner-city living could look like without having to invest vast amounts of money and time into designing sustainable buildings from scratch. The brief demonstrates how the scheme could be applied to social housing, the kind found in most of Wellington’s suburbs. This in itself could revolutionise the way residents interact with their city – not least by improving home environments to the extent that people would want to work from h o m e , and be provided with easy ways of doing this (broadband initiatives and cheap power most crucially). Plant Rooms would also go along way to achieving the kind of carbon neutrality that sustainability representatives can only dream of.

_____________________________________

In New Zealand our thinking has concentrated on managing the effects of individual activities rather than managing urban systems and their interconnections. Ministry for the Environment, (2004) Draft New Zealand Urban Design Protocol.

Thinking about future urban environments can seem forbiddingly complex. It’s not. If managed well it can be like coming up with the best kind of utopian science fiction scenario and then putting it into action! A mite optimistic, perhaps. But it has the potential to be about revolutionising the way our city governs our lives, instead of lurching from one overpopulated crisis to another.

The anti-bypass campaign Save Our Streets believes that Wellington’s unique urban design “has created a social, business and creative network that supports an authentic creative culture unlike many other places in the world.” In order to continue to foster this creativity that we all dig so much (and that gives a lovely broad theme to Kerry Prendergast’s Wellington Vision), we need to think ahead about how to provide for this culture in the future. It won’t look anything like it did when the Creative Quarter first grew out of the muddy grounds of the capital. To borrow Gaylene Preston’s analogy, the creative of Cuba St is the wetlands to Wellington’s native bush, its murky depths providing all kinds of nutritious fodder for the city at large. If we are to continue cultivating this image of our prodigious capital, we need to think about what it will look like and how it will function, and I for one don’t like to think of it as an isolated townhouseville.

By Tania Sawicki Mead

Transport: Unblocking the city’s arteries

Getting to university from around the city is becoming harder, as the price of oil and ever increasing traffic problems are piling pressure on our already outdated transport infrastructure. Decisions about the future of transport need to be made right now. How will we face this issue, going into a future where private transport simply isn’t going to be a realistic option, especially for students? In the inner city we pay more than anywhere else in the country for student accommodation. Food prices are rising, as are alcohol prices. How will we survive?

For those students living outside the CBD it’s even worse. Fighting the traffic is infuriating and the endless rail and bus transfers are an expensive annoyance. As Wendell Cox pointed out to the Wellington City Council: “When people are asked about public transport, they are rarely, if ever, told how long or how many transfers it will take for them to complete their trips that do not begin or end in the downtown area.” This is a serious problem when you’re paying at each transfer and running late. Our rolling stock is aging and when the price of oil gets even higher the influx of people to public transport will strain it even further. Buses from the Hutt and western suburbs are hindered by the lack of enough dedicated bus lanes, forcing them to battle traffic and idle, which leads to the emission of even more pollutants into the atmosphere. “US Environmental Protection Agency research shows that the optimal speed for minimizing automobile air pollution is 55 to 90 kph. Slowing traffic will worsen air pollution,” Cox explains.

city1.jpg

Due to high fuel prices, more and more professionals are moving into the inner city, raising prices and forcing students into the outer suburbs. Welcome, Aro St, to your new friend gentrification. With students being forced further and further away from the youth stealing abyss that is this university, the option of walking will be more of a marathon than a stroll.

city2.jpg

We could always move to other forms of personal transport. For the light traveller the scooter is a pretty effective means of transportation, just so long as you can buy one with enough torque to get up the many mountainous regions of Wellington, and aren’t too concerned by being on something with an NCAP vehicle safety rating of -3000. For those of you who aren’t concerned about looking like a new money douche bag, then the Segway could be an alternative, but don’t be shocked when you’re passed by pedestrians (who have a higher top speed then you on your Segway) coughing “wanker!” under their breath. And for the voyeurs out there, the bike (with mandatory lycra short shorts) is always a green alternative; just remember you look like a twat.

While those may have enticed some of you, the rest of us are still looking towards public transport as the solution to our woes, but as Alan Hoffman of The Mission Group said to a 2006 seminar on transportation and urban development in Auckland: “For public transport to get traction, it has to be a positive experience – where you get on, get off, and in transit, you have to feel or see that you are moving faster and in comfort.” The only way forward is a system that makes public transport more acceptable, cheaper, better and faster. If we want people to adopt public transport in any meaningful numbers, we need to move it from grungy stations and bloodstained seats (speaking from experience here) to a clean modern experience, that is safe and maybe even comforting.

What are our options for the future?

In its Draft Corridor Plan Wellington City Council has pulled together an ambitious menu of projects to improve public transport and smooth traffic flow throughout the city. The Plan will kick off in 2010 with a $33 million rebuild of the Basin Reserve. The Council’s artist’s concept shows a grand new Basin Reserve entrance and improved public transport hub. Council says that road improvements at the Basin are desperately needed to separate east-west traffic from north-south flows and improve public transport on Kent Tc, Cambridge Tc and Adelaide Rd. Existing roads are near capacity, and things can only get worse when Adelaide Rd is redeveloped as high density apartments – all in the Council’s 20 year plan. Council hopes that changes to the Basin will provide benefits without the need to duplicate the Mt Victoria Tunnel.

Part of the consideration of the development of the road around the Basin Reserve is to revitalise it as a public space and make it more accessible via public transport while also improving walking and cycling opportunities.

Elsewhere, Council has budgeted over $30 million for new bus lanes from Ngauranga to Aotea, and to reallocate existing lanes along the Hutt motorway for buses and high occupancy vehicles. The aim is to use shoulder lanes on each side of the motorway as an extra lane during peak hours. This would make maximum use of the road, reduce travel times, improve reliability, benefit vehicles carrying freight to the port and airport and take one lane of traffic off the Hutt Road.

Another $15 million is budgeted to improve bus services to key suburban centres including Newtown, Hataitai, Kilbirnie, Brooklyn, Karori and Island Bay. At peak hours, dedicated bus lanes would be in place, traffic signal pre-emption would allow buses that are running late to be given a run of green lights. Up-to the-minute arrival information would be displayed electronically at bus stops along the route.

Wellington’s pedestrians and cyclists get a mention in the Plan, but (as yet) nothing you can get excited about. In August, the Council will invite consultation on draft pedestrian and cycling ‘policy statements’, setting out proposals for making getting from the suburbs to the city safer and more convenient. Students will get a special mention.

Longer-term, the Council plans to spend about $20 million on ‘feasibility assessments’ for street widening in the central city, building two new road tunnels under the Terrace and Mt Vic, and installing a dedicated busway from Johnsonville to the airport. Also possible is a light rail system from the Wellington railway station to Newtown. Total cost of these projects would be about $500 million – more if ‘light rail’ was extended to the airport.

So, the Council has done a lot of thinking, and has about $80 million to spend in the next few years. By their own admission, that’s less than 20% of what’s required to fix the problem and make public transport the first choice for most of us.

So, who else has done any thinking?

To their credit, the Council is streets ahead of most of our other political leaders on public transport. At least they have a detailed plan. Labour and National are strangely selfcongratulatory on issues like public transport and emissions control. To be fair to Labour, they have made big roading investments in Auckland (less so in Wellington) that are in part dependent on improving public transport. And lets not forget the buying back of the rail network which could be useful in any future rail plan, although any development will be far away. There still seems to be a fear of offending the private car driving electorate when it comes to transferring real cash from the motorway account, and with known National policies as rare as seeing a hippopotamus in Wellington Zoo, did anyone really expect them to have announced anything on public transport?

This leaves the Greens’ utopian vision of creating in Wellington one of the best transport systems in the world. Spokesperson Sue Kedgley says: “We want to see a state-of-the-art public transport system in Wellington, with light rail from the Hutt and Johnsonville through to Courtney Pl and the airport, a modern fleet of trains and railways stations, and trolley buses powered by electricity generated by wind turbines.”

The Greens policy goes on to promise more inter-suburban links, more trains and double tracking to the Kapiti Coast and regular train connections to other centres using renewable energy. Cyclists are given pride of place, with offers of free carriage of bikes on public transport, free bike storage in the revamped transport hubs and a network of improved cyclistonly arterials throughout Wellington. Walkers don’t get much, just a promise to encourage Safe Routes to School and Walking School Buses.

For the Greens, people who still want to drive their own cars in this ‘utopia’ are treated like smokers are now. A bit of an inconvenience and behavioural modification will fix ‘em. Let’s start with congestion charges like London, encourage car pooling, penalise people who drive ‘big’ cars and coddle the Prius crowd.

“Our entire plan would only cost about $750 million, or less than the cost of Transmission Gully,” says Kedgley, who also opposes urban sprawl on the Coast (Kapiti residents beware). “Just two wind turbines could power our entire fleet of 60 trolley buses,” says Wellington transport campaigner and local Greenie Roland Sapsford.

Easy to say, but who pays for it? And how ‘new and different’ is the Greens’ policy anyway? Much of what’s practical in the Greens’ Wellington Transport Policy is already happening. Things like bio-diesel and hybrid vehicles, bus lanes, smoothing traffic flows and double tracking to Kapiti – all done or about to be.

How will this pan out?

The Council seems to have a plan, but will they see this through or are they blowing smoke up our arses? The Wellington City Council has always been good at getting statues built and keeping the riffraff out of the CBD but can they be trusted to maintain a long term commitment to something as important as this? This will take public support, but the biggest threat to their plan is money: can they fund this at a realistic level indefinitely?

The full Green package is… vast, but essentially underwhelming. Much of what the Greens have been saying is already in the council strategy and what has been left out was unrealistic to say the least. Their ‘flagship strategies’ such as the oxymoronically named ‘light rail’ system won’t translate well to a Wellington context, and would need a denser populous to justify the immense expense. The last thing we need is an empty rail system running at a loss.

——-

Any decisions made on Transport affect how we will live our lives in this city, so here your chance to have your say

Submissions close on Monday 28 July but late Submissions have in the past been accepted so if you feel passionate about this issue then speak up. During August a committee will hear people speak in support of their submissions. In October the corridor plan will be formally approved by the three study partners. The plan will be presented to the Regional Land Transport Committee for formal adoption in October, and will become part of the Regional Land Transport Programme.

By Haimona Peretini Gray

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Comments (11)

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  1. bisky risness says:

    poppycock

  2. TV3 says:

    Dear Salient,

    Your immaturity as a serious news provider is demonstrated in that you have entirely missed the most salient point of any attempts to improve public transport: the Attractive Young Female (or AYF) factor. If you make AYFs want to use public transport, the rest will follow. Everything else is just detail, and since you failed to evaluate the effect of the AYF factor, your article simply skips around the surface without really probing the issue in depth.

    Yours Sincerely,
    TV3’s Nightline bulletin

  3. t-rex says:

    Haimona could almost quality as an Attractive Young Female . . look at those luscious locks. And we all know he’s keen on public transport.

  4. The Undeniable Eric Shin says:

    The problem with having AYF’s like Haimona on public transport is that I sometimes get exctited.
    You know, you’re in those seats where you have to face someone, a AYF sits across from you, the bus is jiggling, you’re oggling… it makes for an embarassing situation when you eventually have to stand up.

    It brings a whole new meaning to “getting off” the bus.

  5. Haimona Gray says:

    SWOON, do you want to come up to the office for… ‘coffee’ :)

  6. Haimona Gray says:

    Eric T Shin, do you have a Buzz Lightyear duvet? that could be a deal breaker

  7. Michael Oliver says:

    We need to talk
    Step into my office, baby
    I want to give you the job
    A chance of overtime
    Say, my place at nine?

  8. t-rex says:

    PS. Haimona. Some of my best friends ride bicycles. Who are you calling a twat, twat?

  9. Haimona Gray says:

    I’m calling them twats, I thought that was self evident.

  10. Tania Mead says:

    It’s self-evident that YOU’RE at twat . . .

  11. Alexander says:

    :-) And a bike when the wind doesn’t blow :-)
    Wind power is not a solution.
    The whole truth about wind turbines is never told by lobbyists and governments.
    How could the very weak and extremely unreliable initial energy source of a wind turbine ever produce a steady power of any significance?
    Please think!
    And read: “Wind energy- the whole truth” at: http://www.windenergy-the-truth.com/
    And to show how completely irrelevant wind power is in regard to the worldwide energy and climate crisis visit the following link: http://www.bp.com/iframe.do?categoryId=9024179&contentId=7044895
    And play around with the charts you see there (The BP charts regarding energy reserves and energy consumption worldwide over the last 20 to 40 years.) and make some calculations. And if you don´t get confused with the zeros, you will get my point.
    The resources now poured into futile, but very ingenious and high-tech windmills, could be far better used for, for example:
    1) Burning coal in a cleaner way,
    2) Efficiency of energy use in the broadest sense of the word
    3) Promoting a drastic change of life style (There are about 6.5 billion people, who all have the right to have some energy to their disposal).
    Just 3 ideas.
    Alexander

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