A better view

This Issue This is a part of the Intensification and urban planning feature

By - , Build 187

Ian Pike, CEO of UDINZ, says that, while our natural environment is beautiful, the same can’t be said for our urban development. He imagines what life would be like if our cities were green, compact, diverse and connected.

IN 2020, the Urban Development Institute of New Zealand (UDINZ) collaborated with the Greater Christchurch Partnership to understand what Greater Christchurch could look like in 30 years.

Aspirations for our cities

Unsurprisingly, there was a focus on safety, inclusiveness and a hope that 2050 Christchurch would be free of racism and systemic bias and diversity would be celebrated.

The aspirations of Christchurch would surely be echoed across Aotearoa. They spoke of a city designed for people not cars, with easy access to affordable public transport and active modes.

Green space featured large, as did addressing climate change. Affordable, quality and diverse housing options were highlighted – and urban sprawl rejected! Residents wanted a green, sustainable, compact and environmentally friendly city.

Densification and affordability were key concepts – with a call for a clearly articulated vision for the future. The people of Christchurch wanted change but didn’t necessarily know exactly what good intensification looks like. Is it any wonder?

No focus on quality built environment

New Zealand’s idyllic landscape and form is the envy of the world but not so our built environment. Early colonial settlers assumed a Pacific paradise, and subsequent development has been unsuited to our climate, with single glazing, inadequate insulation and poor-quality materials. Appropriate urban design has also been absent.

Unfortunately, within the Resource Management Act reform agenda, the draft Natural and Built Environments Bill contains numerous provisions promoting the quality of the natural environment but there is no equivalent for the quality of the urban built environment.

In 2018, Minister Phil Twyford rightly stated to the Urbanism New Zealand Conference, ‘We have never really embraced the city. We are only now beginning to grapple with density – the very essence of the city. All the contemporary symptoms of the urban problem – homelessness, a punishing rental market, cold damp homes, traffic gridlock, unaffordable housing, social isolation, crumbling infrastructure – reflect our collective fracture to understand how cities work and invest in their success.’

Our poor record of quality development results in a low level of understanding of what an ideal community could look like – but we have the tools and imagination to change that.

New Zealand has insatiable demand, enabling legislation and wonderful architects. Could we not develop principles for quality urban development for all? To plan and deliver, we need a healthy blend of bold initiating leadership – perhaps Kāinga Ora using its enabling legislation under the Urban Development Act – and a partnership structure of central and local government, mana whenua, social housing providers and communities. This is not about money – it’s about working differently and collaboratively.

Reimagining parts of Wellington

I live in Wellington, so I’ll offer a local example. There’ll be a similar one in a town near you. Kent and Cambridge Terraces and Adelaide Road could show us how thoughtful densification could improve the lives of many Wellingtonians through our urban environment.

Currently, rows of low-level commercial buildings and car sales yards, achingly close to Wellington’s CBD, grossly underutilise the space. It’s not difficult to imagine artfully planned streets and spaces framed by a combination of medium and high-density housing, with a social mix of wealthy and not so well off, young and old. An efficient mass transit system connects new urban nodes with the airport, city, hospital and other nearby amenities. Green spaces provide breathing places for recreation.

The residential developments are designed with solar panels and distributed energy – perhaps a local micro-grid – with efficient waste and water systems. There is variety and a place for all – a tangible example that helps define what quality looks and feels like.

Redefining our urban environments

Underpinning developments like this are quality decision making, practical user-friendly regulations, shared vision, aligned decision making, engagement and targeted funding. As we face the challenges of climate change, housing affordability, population growth and escalating change, never has it been so important to redefine our urban environments.

For decades, we have voted with our feet – moving from city centres and rural areas into sprawling suburbs. Now we need to embrace a dense, more compact urban form.

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