Arguments for a better urban form

By Stephen Olsen

Responses to the future direction of Wellington’s messy and tatty urban form is bound to be a key local government election issue when voting opens in 20 weeks’ time.

A pointer to this took place yesterday evening when St Peter’s Church hosted an occasionally fired-up public meeting on issues that greater density gives rise to. The event – organised by Live Wellington [] and supported by Inner City Wellington, [] – was fronted by a panel of WCC councillor Tamatha Paul, GWRC councillor Dr Roger Blakeley, and environment consultant Dr Paul Blaschke.

A nominal point of focus for the meeting was to bounce ideas around that were part and parcel of the Gehl Architects report [] as publicised by its commissioner, Let’s Get Wellington Moving, in March. The report’s key findings being that Wellington’s car traffic and parking is occupying too much valuable land which could be redesigned to support higher-density housing, greener and more public spaces, and to provide a safer and more attractive city environment. 

Dr Blakeley started the meeting with a helicopter overview of the Auckland planning he helped to steer into place when he was Auckland’s Chief Planning Officer from 2010-15, as an indirect point of reference.

Bridging into current urban planning controversies he referred to a Sunday Star-Times article published at the weekend, titled ‘Keep the villas, or knock them down? Auckland faces generational divide’. He quoted the compliment paid in the article by architectural historian Julia Gatley to Auckland Council for working “really hard to strike a balance between central government’s instruction for densification and the desire to maintain heritage and character values.”

In the meeting’s later Q&A, the issue of striking that balance on character protection in Wellington was a subject for hot debate, amid various contentions about the perennial chestnut that public consultation processes may start with the promise of open-ended listening but almost always land on a ‘fait accompli’.

James Fraser went to bat strongly for his We Are Newtown group, while also declaring an acknowledgement of the need for density. Other meeting attendees voiced frustration that desirable urban design guidelines are not being elevated into a hardset framework of rules. Members of the panel pushed back on this, on the basis that guidelines avoid the reverse trap of becoming overly prescriptive.

Dr Blaschke, who spoke to his work on green space in central Wellington, [] also managed to generate some unresolved division in the room around whether ‘pocket parks’ in the inner city are genuinely positive green spaces, or are just too small and prone to being areas for unsafe behaviour.

Councillor Tamatha Paul expressed her frustrations at how Wellington City Council has slipped deletoriously into a backseat role when it comes to truly proactive city-making – through the likes of shutting down its works capacity, along with mass outsourcing in areas extending to public transport operations, capitulating to car park building operators and under-prioritising of public housing.

The gist of her sentiments were that city leaders who aren’t demonstrating an ability to take bold, strategic and inspirational actions are just contributing to an environment of “lull and tension”. All at a time when the city also needs to be focused on navigating what Councillor Paul aptly called an ongoing state of “construction disruption”.

This wasn’t a meeting or forum for learning in detail about definitive directions. Even so it was interesting to hear from Dr Blakeley that on the Let’s Get Wellington Moving [] front the option of South coast light rail plus a new public transport tunnel (Option 1) is the “likely preferred option”, and that some movement on a special urban development vehicle to accompany that – similar but different to Eke Panuku Development Auckland – is on the cards.

Reverend Jean Malcom, Co-Vicar at St Peter’s, did a great job of shepherding the panel and the meeting’s Q&A, as well as putting a challenge to all those present to think of what they might do to champion a better city as older citizens.

It was fitting that during the meeting Ellen Blake of Living Streets Aotearoa gave a nod to the memory of the legacy of American-Canadian urban activist Jane Jacobs, whose birth anniversary is celebrated every year on 4 May and who spent a lifetime standing up to the dominance of short-sighted, profit-driven developers.

What would Jane Jacobs say about the be-striding and undulating concrete thickets of central Wellington? Are the taonga of the townbelt and our harbour’s beautiful crucible sufficient to offset the urban muddle and reach aspirational goals of being more liveable?

What does the future hold for a city that is too often an ‘asphalt on the senses’? As raised by an audience member at this meeting, the integrity and potential of our compact city barely survived the scarred ravages of the urban motorway of the 1970s and the ongoing trade-offs of an ever-present, ever-prevalent car culture.

Will politicians seeking the keys to the City of Wellington this year commit to doing better?