A plainly daft piece on the proposed Auckland Plan by Bill Ralston recently appeared in the NZ Listener. In it he claims, completely without any reason, that the plan sets out to demolish where he lives, as well as every other desirable part of Auckland in the name of instensification. This is simply untrue. It is true that the Plan hopes to encourage Auckland to continue to become a more intensive city, but not by demolishing the very best bits, or even very much of it at all. In fact it is decidedly half-hearted about containing the spread outwards, even proposing 140,000 new detached houses be built in the next 30 years under one scenario. All on what is currently productive and attractive distant countryside, and all to be served by endlessly and expensively rolling out new services: From the current 385,000 detached houses to 526,000! Did you actually read the thing, Bill?
In any case, intensification is clearly a matter of degree and the areas proposed for the kind of high density high rise growth that so alarms dear old Bill [but of course not everyone], is all carefully allotted to currently empty or underused commercial ‘brownfields’ sites on transport corridors in areas like the CBD, Glen Innes, and New Lynn. Not Bill’s neck of the woods. Other areas are intended to be encouraged to move from low to medium density. Bill’s place isn’t on this list either.
Ironically, in light of this reaction, the type of intensification that would go a long way to both accommodating Auckland’s growth and greatly improving our quality of life is about trying to help more of Auckland more closely resemble Bill’s very own suburb. His suburb is, in fact, a role model for how much of Auckland ideally could be. But that isn’t by repeating the thing that Bill thinks his ‘burb is all about, the appearance of the buildings, but rather about how they are organised. Not architectural design, but urban design. Really, how?
Freemans Bay is, along with St Mary’s Bay, Herne Bay, Parnell, Devonport, Northcote, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, and Mt Eden, a highly sought after and therefore expensive bit of old Auckland. So it is worth asking what is so good about it?
Well most of the buildings are old. That’s it isn’t it? Most people love old houses, with their mature trees, and in Auckland that means Victorian and Edwardian houses, usually detached wooden dwellings. Unlike Sydney, Auckland isn’t old enough to have Georgian buildings and also unlike Sydney or Dunedin there wasn’t the resource of stone or even much brick to compete with the pillage of the native forests that our forebears felt so entitled to use so completely. Furthermore, in a reversal of the trend of the second half of the last century we have recently been rediscovering the advantages of these close-in old suburbs. So instead of looking on these areas as slums and bulldozing them wholesale in order to build motorways as we did from the 1960s we have recently been turning houses like this one:
More and more into houses like this one:
But that isn’t the whole story is it? Properly understood three factors make Freemans Bay such a great place to live, and only one of them is the irreplaceable age of the structures. And this is important because while we can’t time-travel and build real Victorian houses again we can take the best urban design features from these areas to improve what we build next, and even fix other parts of the existing city with these ideas too. The three essential features, in no particular order, that make Freemans Bay so desirable are:
- 1. Physical Heritage
- 2. Proximity to the centre
- 3. Population density
All the things that you may like about Freemans Bay flow from these; for example, great cafés and shops? They are a function of the quantity of people around and the desirability of the place, which in turn is because of the density of the housing and the proximity to the centre of town. Retail businesses need enough customers, and specialised ones need an even higher number going by because their appeal is, by definition, narrow.
But hang on, waddaymean population density?, this is just a suburb with detached houses and some shops isn’t it?, same as Dannemora or Botany? Well it isn’t high density but it is medium density and is considerably higher than most more recent suburbs. And here’s how: As this post by Admin shows, when looked at in detail you can see that the narrow streets and painted shiplap conceal a clever spatial order that maximises private space yet retains public charm. It is in fact this spatial order, and its resultant density of population that sustains the local businesses and other amenities all at close proximity.
Of course old buildings add texture and charm, but it is important urban design features and not architectural ones that make the real structural differences. Let’s look at Bill’s favourite café, mentioned in his article: Agnes Curran.
Yes it is in a building pleasingly made of plastered brick and the door to the rooms above are surrounded by Georgian style decoration, lovely. But let’s look at everything else that makes this a really successful streetscape and business. The café occupies a tiny space about the size of two car parks, it is right up to the generous footpath, a footpath separated from the traffic by mature Plane trees [with a new one recently added on the right], the trees also accommodate a limited number of on-street car parks. A small apartment building to the left of the shot is smack up the boundary with the cafe and the footpath, and there are other levels of accommodation above retail spaces on the main road. Thus there is an extremely tight integration of the residential and commercial functions of this neighbourhood; so everyone walks, no need to drive when your destination is already right there. Here it is from above: The cafe is in the alley between the grey and reddish rooves at bottom left. Occupying the space that would have to be given over to off-street parking were this a new building- by current council regulation. Note that the houses are closer than is currently allowed in new subdivisions, and that their garden space is all together in one piece at the rear of each house. Small, but all usable, and private. And Ponsonby Rd is, by Auckland standards, relatively well served by public transport, especially in the form of the frequent new Inner Link bus service, connecting this place to the CBD, the universities, the hospital, everything really.
It is easy to see that this is quite an intensely built place, but also pleasantly leafy, and is in fact at the intersection of two pretty busy roads; Ponsonby and Franklin. How can it be of such density but still be so pleasant, it must be the design of the buildings? Well that is of course important, but how much they appeal to you is really a matter of personal taste, no, it has much more to do with what is not visible in this picture. To show what that is lets have a look at a cafe in a more recent part of town:
Dunkin Donuts at Botany Downs courtesy of Google [sorry but I’m not going there]. And from above:
Well in fact there’s a whole lot of food outlets on in this image, a KFC, a seafood place, as well as Dunkin Donuts. And yup they are all pretty nasty new buildings, built to a price and without any conviction that they mean to stay. But also note there are no houses or apartments of any kind here and no one walking. But there is the one amenity that is almost entirely absent from the earlier scene. This is a place rich in carparking. Viewed from above or from street level it is clear that this is a place entirely made for the movement and storage of cars. Yes you can argue that that what most distinguishes the natures of these two places is the age and design of the structures, but it is also clear that the spatial organisation is at least as important a difference. Put simply the first is designed for people and the second for cars. The first has a higher density of humans and the second of machines. The first, of course, commands much higher values and is where Bill wants to live. And the first, while more expensive to buy into, is actually cheaper to live in, because the intensity of the place means the costs of movement are much lower. It is a place that you can easily function without a car at all for example [As local resident, Bill, says in this article].
But of course the people living Freemans Bay do still use cars, but unlike those that live in the these new areas, they don’t have to use them just to get to their local café or other common local amenity, like schools, workplaces, or bars. They walk more and they use public transport more. Why? not because they are cleverer than the people in Dannemora but because their area was designed for those choices to be the most obvious, most productive, and most enjoyable things to do. And we can spread more of this simple genius to other parts of our city, even Botany, if can just reverse the insane auto-centric planning priorities of the last fifty years. This means putting people at the centre of the spatial organisation of places. It means repealing the rules that insist that the car must be catered for first. And it means for many of our primarily residential areas mixing the living and working and playing in the kind of intense proximity that Bill enjoys in Freemans Bay.
And it also means that we must provide systems of movement that do not devalue the very places they are meant to serve. Which of course means fast, frequent, smart, public transit. Something lacking in the newer suburb.
Furthermore, if we can get those planning settings right and are able to encourage the kind of spatial organisation that Bill enjoys so unconsciously in Freemans Bay, it is highly likely that we will see the design of the individual buildings in these places improve significantly, because increased intensity of humans also means increased intensity of economic activity. And, of course, because it involves unlocking the land and the resources currently tied up so unproductively in providing so much amenity for vehicles.
We can have Freemans Bay’s qualities of urban design in other places with contemporary design and technologies, after all Freemans Bay isn’t all old buildings and is all the better for it. It isn’t a museum. Here are two quite different and award winning recent detached houses there, The first by Marsh Cook:
And the second by Malcolm Walker:
Freemans Bay also has contemporary buildings by Mitchell + Stout, Stevens Lawson, Fearon Hay, Andrew Patterson, and more. Along with council pensioner flats, town houses, and apartment buildings.
And remember, while The Plan doesn’t envisage the core of Freemans Bay changing much at all, it does for some other underperforming areas of Auckland. And as the picture below of Freemans Bay in 1877 shows change is always possible, and can be a very good thing indeed……… Anyway, why shouldn’t more Aucklanders get the chance to enjoy their neighbourhood as much as our friend Bill Ralston enjoys his?