Auckland Waterfront 2040

March 10th, 2010

In all the debate around Queens Wharf, ferry terminals, and supercity governance it easy to forget that there is actually an established plan for Auckland’s waterfront. It serves the purposes of the media and others to overlook the existence of this plan, which many have devoted significant time and effort to.  So as a reminder for some, and a revelation for others take a look at Auckland Waterfront 2040.

Picture of Auckland's CBD waterfront.

The economic case for investing in schools

March 8th, 2010

The government’s first infrastructure plan confirms their intention to invest $14b over the next 10 years in school construction. The UK’s Commission of Architecture and the Build Environment (CABE) has released recent research on the economic case for investing in schools. Of particular interest are their comments on the difference which school design makes to student attainment and their claim that the evidence is accumulating.

One link between the design of a school and the performance of its pupils is easy to establish: bullying. A child who is bullied finds it much harder to do well academically than one who isn’t, and older schools are more bully-friendly than those designed with the problem in mind – all those narrow corridors, dead ends and intimidating toilet blocks. The National Foundation for Educational Research carried out a study at Bristol Brunel academy, which opened in 2007; this showed that the number of pupils who said bullying was an issue for them has dropped by 23% compared with the school it replaced. Vandalism has dropped by 51%, and the number of pupils who say they “feel safe” has risen by 30%.

Another benefit of investing in schools is that good buildings attract good teachers. “We don’t see any conflict between investing in teachers and the buildings in which they work,” says Finch, alluding to the temptation for governments to cut capital works rather than teachers’ pay. “If good teachers have a choice between a good school building and a bad one, there will be some who will see the bad as a challenge to take up, but most will opt for a nice place. Good buildings tend to attract more and better qualified people to work and they stay there longer.” Of course in the shorter term this will benefit the upgraded schools at the expense of the rest, but that should be a transitory cost as the programme unrolls. The ultimate benefit, of course, would be to improve the status, and therefore the quality, of the teaching profession as a whole.

Any thoughts on the above, the robustness of the research?

Suburban sprawl another blow for US home owners

March 1st, 2010

What’s the big deal about suburban sprawl? According to some sources in the United States it is shaping up as a real issue for large numbers of home owners. Add to the impact which the GFC has already had on US suburban house prices and the outline for these American families is not rosy.

Remember, diversity is important – it’s not just a catchphrase. It’s no less critical to communities’ survival than it is to the success of your own investment portfolio… has become the latest news outlet to confirm that the ever-outward suburban construction boom that defined United States real estate virtually unchallenged for half a century has gone bust, and perhaps not just temporarily. The latest, a new article by Melinda Fuller of MSN Real Estate, gives us an update with a few new tidbits:

  • Arthur C. (Chris) Nelson’s trend research says that we may have a surplus of as many as 25 million large-lot suburban homes by 2030. Many of them will be converted to multifamily properties.
  • Aging baby boomers (cough) are likely to start selling off their large suburban homes at a rate of five percent per year between 2010 and 2030.
  • Some suburban homes that cannot be sold are already being converted into subsidized affordable housing.
  • The average European household spends only a third as much of their income on transportation as do American suburbanites.
  • The suburbs that survive will be the ones with walkable, mixed-use amenities.
  • Suburban retrofits may be the next development frontier, but outdated policies and practices won’t make it easy.

Washington Post’s view on best and worst architecture

February 25th, 2010

Any disagreement with the Washington Post’s view on the best, and some of the worst, of last decade’s architecture? Identified among the best are the Tate Modern, and Beijing National Stadium (Bird’s Nest). And the worst The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

A pedestrian-only boulevard for Wellington

February 24th, 2010

As the local body elections near we’ll see more ideas emerging from candidates and their teams. Late last year we had an interesting one in Wellington advocated by none other than Sir Robert Jones.

Sir Robert, a Wellington property millionaire, and supposedly retired, is putting together a team to run for the Wellington mayoralty. Running on the single issue to create a pedestrian-only boulevard from Lambton Quay to Courtenay Place Sir Robert says there’s “Nothing else. This is what people will vote for.”

The concept, modelled on cities such as Copenhagen and Budapest, would include free bikes and trams, water fountains every 100 metres, and possibly an ice rink and sound shell for entertainment. The car-free space would be perfect for open markets too, of which Sir Robert says: “Women are mad, we all know that, but they love Saturday markets. Some men do too.”

Unsurprisingly, Sir Robert’s vision has hit a road block with many Wellington businesses worried at the impact that it could have on their custom. Is it time to look at possible compromises? A post on the New Urbanism Blog provides some interesting ideas worth considering.

In other cases, it means getting creative, and using our spaces more efficiently for more hours of the day…

How about some examples?

One of my all-time favorites is Belden Alley in San Francisco. By daytime, this is a typical service alley like so many in any downtown or urban area. By nighttime, however, the alley transforms. Restaurants actually open onto the alley, and move tables and chairs out onto the pavement space. Bollards are placed at the alley entries so that vehicles cannot drive through. The space becomes alive with people relaxing and enjoying the evening.

The same condition exists in various ways in older cities throughout the U.S. A key component of a recent master plan that we co-authored in downtown Evanston, IL emphasized better use of the alleys as pedestrian ways, building upon a small successful couple of local examples. Other cities with increasingly active urban areas have experimented with this approach, which incidentally helps with safety as well by providing more activity in otherwise dark areas.

But we need not stop at just alleys. Our streets themselves deserve the same kind of thinking. Again, by thinking creatively about how to manage space, we can create more life, and more pleasure in our cities. A great example is the Cicolvia phenomenon. Begun in Bogota, Colombia, the idea was borne to shut down a large amount of the city’s streets (or portions of streets) for most of the day on every Sunday. On the temporarily-closed streets, people ride bikes, jog, walk with their kids, play games and much more. I had the chance to observe this in both Bogota and Medellin in Colombia, and it’s truly one of those experiments that the people who live there find great enjoyment from. Just think of our own over-sized streets, and how easy it would be to close them down for a “slower” Sunday to get out and simply enjoy life in the neighborhood or the City.

The possibilities are endless – the only hurdle we have to overcome is the assumption that all pavement space must be for vehicles all the time. Ray Bradbury eloquently wrote about this in the short story, The Girls Walk This Way,

“We drive… and drive… and drive and come home blind with exhaustion. We have seen nothing, nor have we been seen. Our total experience? Six waved hands, a thousand blurred faces, seventeen Volkswagon rears and some ripe curses from a Porsche and an MG behind.” And later: “Now we must remember that drama and theater are not special and separate and private things in our lives. They are the true stuffs of living, the heart and soul of any true city. It follows we must begin to provide architectural stages upon which our vast populations can act out their lives.”

If anyone is going to get traction on the concept of turning much of Wellington’s CBD into a pedestrian zone it is Sir Robert Jones. We will watch with some interest.

Designing a response to Haiti disaster

February 24th, 2010

I recently came across an interesting video on the New Urbanism Blog looking at a housing response to the devastation in Haiti where hundreds of thousands have been left homeless. The New Urbanism Blog says of the proposal:

There’s obviously much I like about the approach he is suggesting, not the least of which is the careful use of design to solve social, urban design and architectural problems.  Too many people approach situations such as these and don’t consider how design can solve many of the pre-existing issues, or certainly how it’s critical to look at urban design in addition to simply building design.

In the video Andres Duany of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co documents a proposed approach to rebuilding Haiti. It is an interesting approach for a number of reasons – the smallest structures can be put up in half a day, the Duany Plater team have delved into what they call the “sociological issues”. This has looked at developing an understanding of Haitian family structures, how they live, their social norms – to ensure that what they’re constructing is actually used.

Read the rest of this entry »

The quest for the “iconic”

November 23rd, 2009

Today Tommy Honey on Radio NZ‘s Nine-to-Noon talked about (criticises) the apparent quest to create “iconic” buildings. He was particularly referring to Auckland’s Queen’s Wharf competition and the comments that entrants failed to put forward iconic designs.

But really what are the qualities of iconic buildings, who is to say that a early stage design will eventually attain iconic status, and how exactly do you build this quest into a competition or design brief. If there is a formula for creating “iconic” buildings what is it? If there are people out there with the ability to divine public sentiment 20, 50, or 100 years into the future – please point them out.

Centralising planning of Australia’s major cities

November 2nd, 2009

Last week in Australia the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed introducing national criteria for the future planning of Australia’s major cities – effectively, centralising many city planning functions.

Naturally, the reception from state and territorial government was mixed. However, the Australian PM’s argument is pretty clear – our funds, our rules.

“If the Commonwealth is to foot any significant part of the urban infrastructure bill in the future, the Commonwealth legitimately will expect to have confidence in the integrity of the strategic planning systems of our major cities,” he said.

He’s proposed setting up a new planning strategy with the goal of making Australian cities productive, liveable and sustainable. The plan is partly to alleviate the risk that significant infrastructure investment may effectively be lost if they don’t get the shape of their cities right.

The plan would regulate land releases for housing, encourage good design, ensure adequate transport infrastructure and take into account the expected impact of climate change.

Is there any need for such measures in New Zealand?

Auckland’s Queen’s Wharf design competition controversy

November 2nd, 2009

The current controversy surrounding the running of Auckland’s Queen’s Wharf design competition is a real shame. The volume of negative attention received before a design has even been picked and construction commenced can only hurt the project.

It’s a shame because these kinds of design competitions offer the chance to pull in a wide range of stakeholders, and to generate community interest and pride in the eventual public asset.

The UK’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) offers some useful advice on the experience of people who have run successful competitions to help understand what is involved.

CABE says successful design competitions:

  • create a robust vision that can be used to focus the project, secure funding and set standards.
  • take place at the moment of a project when experimentation is most fruitful
  • allow scoping and testing ideas in a brief
  • help clients to champion quality from the start
  • help focus on the big issues of a project rather than barriers or premature detail
  • allow access to underused talent often locked up in big architectural practices
  • attract keen design teams.

NZIA has been pushing hard for a Government Architect. In this situation the Government Architect could provide specialist advice on the running of such a competition, assisting in the development of the brief, setting the rules and process, and handling the public engagement element. Above all else the Government Architect would provide the important perception of an unbiased and impartial process.