A bit of healthy competition could transform our cities
Delaying the doing is a fine art. The tools are many and varied. Take time for a lavish display of consultation; commission a report or, even better, commission a scoping study for a possible report. Form a working party, a subcomitteee, perhaps a Commission (that’ll be productive). Wait while facts are found, legislation is passed, funds are freed or an election is held. If that doesn’t work, urban planners everywhere have another option: hold a design competition. Invite the world to enter. Now you have years before anything needs to be done.
How wonderful, then, that design competitions have produced so many outstanding public areas and iconic buildings, from the Crystal Palace to the Sydney Opera House and the new World Trade Center. And now is the perfect time—and New Zealand is the perfect place—to seek out the creative (and crazy) ideas to create the cities of the Pacific Century. After all, here we are in the 21st century, with a millennium ahead of us for testing and witnessing just how far the lines between science fact and science fiction will blur.
I’ve been watching the outrageous results of many urban design competitions at Urban Logic, my online magazine about creative urban spaces. There’s no shortage of inspiration. At any one time, somewhere, some place, there’s a design competition being run for that must-have iconic building. Be it in Toronto, Tokyo, Oslo or Chicago, competition brings out the best among the winners and the non-winners, the shortlisted proposals and newfound solutions from leading thinkers and doers. Alongside the eclectic selection of projects that use innovative design to address the great issues of the day—climate change, sustainable communities, water, housing—it is somehow reassuring to see fantastic, other-worldly architectural elements sufficient to entice the Buckminster Fuller in all of us.
There are examples to discover from all corners of the map, including not just both sides of the Atlantic but also the Middle East and the West Bank, Croatia, Rwanda, Gambia, Korea ... outwards and onwards.
But not much from home. In little ole Aotearoa today we have reason to despair at a lack of focus on our urban futures. Yet there’s no shortage of people here plying their professional trade as landscape architects, planners and urban designers.
They may soon have something to sink their teeth into. Two Queens Wharfs—one in Wellington and one in Auckland—are set to be the focus of design competitions. While the details are still being sorted out as Idealog goes to press, both sites are wonderful opportunities for forward-thinking urban design, architecture and public spaces. My hope is that the bar will be set high. Let’s leave behind the Kiwi habit of settling for the good-enough, prosaic solution. Let’s demand dramatic, inspiring ideas that symbolise the best aspects of New Zealanders and their cities.
Most of all, let’s have ideas that encourage hybrid uses of city space. China—where somewhere between 200 and 400 cities will rise from the landscape in the next 20 years—is showing the way. As well as a Beijing transformed by the Olympics, there were signposts to the solar stadium at this year's World Games in Taiwan and what to expect at next year's World Expo in Shanghai. And where else but New York could there be a building planned to accommodate both an auto showroom and a horse stable for the NYPD Mounted Police?
Ideas that might have seemed outlandish a decade ago are being built, particularly in the public spaces of cities—the parks, promenades and pavilions, the gardens and the galleries, the museums and the memorials. The effect of ostensibly small changes—outdoor lanterns, urban cycling, wave-shaped walkways—certainly puts the changes we hope to see in our own cities into a useful context. Given enough examples, even stormwater management design can be sexy. And who can't see the appeal of taking a jackhammer to the nearest expanse of concrete in order to create a Cracked Concrete Garden?
When we’re shown something different, if only fleetingly, we leave with an excuse to indulge our imaginations and to lift our sights for where and how we would most want to live. Let’s invite the wildest ideas for the Queens Wharves. And then, let’s make sure we build the best.