Vibrant cities

By - , Build 171

Sue Evans, Urban Design Manager for Housing New Zealand, says density done well can make towns and cities enviable and help communities thrive.

IN THE DECEMBER 2018 issue of Build magazine, New Zealand Green Building Council Chief Executive Andrew Eagles highlighted how green building solutions can contribute to reducing carbon emissions. I couldn’t agree more, and I’d also suggest that housing density offers even larger social and sustainability benefits.

Building vibrant communities

However, it’s important that, when we talk about housing density, we mean more than housing stock and land utilisation. In urban design terms, we’re really talking about the compact city and how this contributes to building communities that are well functioning and vibrant.

Immediately everyone can think of the best and worst examples of intensification so it’s critical that urban designers understand the psychological success factors alongside masterplanning and asset management. At Housing New Zealand, it feels like a huge responsibility to get this right, given the scale of our work and the imperative for speed.

A sense of place, a culture of belonging

It’s important to put people’s experience of place at the forefront because how we design has real and material effects on people’s lives. It’s the job of urban designers to ask, ‘How will this place make people feel?’ I’m talking about the specific dwelling but also its orientation to the street, to neighbours, to green spaces, and also the feel of the neighbourhood as people of all ages go about their lives.

The post-occupancy evaluation of state housing development Jennings Jersey in Mt Albert found extremely positive responses, with a new tenant stating, ‘In our culture we like to live close, this wasn’t the case when we arrived in New Zealand. In this place and with closer living, we will be part of something.’

At Housing New Zealand, we want to design in such a way that our developments enhance the surrounding neighbourhood, while also having a positive impact on our tenants’ wellbeing. We want design solutions that help people feel connected to each other and to where they live. That is the essence of being at home.

Functionality is paramount

Places that are designed well are easy to live in. To test that functionality, we ask: Is the journey from home to work easy? Is there parking nearby? Where do my kids play? Is my home near a bus stop or a train station? What is the view I look out on? Is my home sunny? Will I feel safe walking home at night?

In suburbs, the answers tend to be: I drive to work, there’s on-street parking, my kids play in the back garden and so on. To deliver on functionality in a denser environment, we need to design more cleverly.

Density done well means there will be shops and a kids’ playground nearby, a bus or train route, schools, health clinics and organised events within easy walking distance. There will be a sense of neighbourhood and interaction and a chance to grow shared culture around ‘our place’.

Sustainable cities

Vibrant cities generate energy through density. New York has the lowest carbon footprint per head of population in the US. This suggests that, if you present viable alternatives to travelling by car, people will take them.

If density is planned and executed according to best practice, it goes hand in hand with public transport, adds vibrancy to social interactions, creates efficient use of land and makes towns and cities function well.

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