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Isthmus: Land, people, culture (and a book)

The book, edited by Michael Barrett, features 25 projects, most from the last decade, through it is “not a history” and “not a treatise on design practice”.

Isthmus CEO Ralph Johns says that as much as a public-facing document that showcases the studio’s best work, the book is about distilling everything that’s special about the Isthmus attitude and taking advantage of the institutional memories of founders Gavin Lister and David Irwin while they’re still fully involved.

“We’ve still got two founders who are still very much here but we’ve got new ownership and new leadership and we’re building a future that will allow us to endure without them,” says Johns. “It’s not just ‘this is what Isthmus has done’, it’s about interrogating what we’ve done, what’s special and unique about it, so we can build on what we’ve done. So I see it as an open book and a platform for building the next 25, 28 years on.”

“I hope that people see that there’s a mindset and a curiosity and a creativity that joins that work that we do, whatever scale it’s at. And that comes down to place, plant, people and culture.”

Founded in 1988 by four recent graduates of the landscape architecture school at Lincoln University, Isthmus set up its studio in a garage behind the Remuera Fire Station in Auckland. It wasn’t long until the studio attracted the attention from the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects, but not in a good way. As word spread about the new practice, the Institute sent a letter advising the four to disband the studio and get apprenticeships at established firms.

“It’s hard to recognise the practice when you look back over 27 years,” Johns says, recalling its first projects of gardens and backyards. “The context and the content of what it was are completely different. The thing that’s stayed the same is attitude. The attitude has always been to do stuff that makes a difference, to make New Zealand a better place in terms of the way we live and our relationship to the land.”

Johns says that the ambition of the practice has been able to grow along with the public acceptance of the concepts that inspired the founders 27 years ago. “Now lots of people are talking about liveable communities, lots of people are talking about sustainable cities, lots of people are talking about the balance between how we use land, how we live together, and design,” he says. “27 years ago, these things weren’t even in the public vocabulary.”

Image: Planning Hobsonville Point

The most prominent example of the studio’s multifaceted approach is Hobsonville Point, a planned development on a West Auckland peninsula, which has been planned by Isthmus in collaboration with the Hobsonville Land Company, a subsidiary of Housing New Zealand.

Isthmus began work on the project ten years ago, when the principles of a neighbourhood planned around pedestrians rather than cars, and a community rather than mere housing, seemed radical.

“Ten years ago, people were questioning whether anybody in their right mind would buy a house in Hobsonville that was a small house on a small section miles out of the city,” says Johns. “But the development model around sustainability and needing to build a community not just build a load of houses has quietly, through design, worked its way into a community that’s starting to shape up, and when you hear what people value about it, it’s exactly those things that we set out to do from the outset.”

Image: Hobsonville Point

Johns says that while Hobsonville Point offers an example of how modern, thoughtful, design-led development can work, it can only serve as an inspiration, not a template.

“Hobsonville is unique, as they have been able to take a long view,” he says. “In a commercial project, you just get straight in and build houses. On this project, the amenity is put in first, so when the first residents move in there were playgrounds and parks and reserves, there was public artwork, there were proper streets and a there was a cafe, so you’re actually moving into a neighbourhood as opposed to moving into a house surrounded by development for the next five years.”

According to Johns, Hobsonville Point’s success is based on a combination of “broad scale land-use planning, government investment, creating a vision at the beginning, and then finding a commercially way of delivering everything.”

And while one new well-designed neighborhood isn’t enough to solve New Zealand’s approaching housing crisis, its design-first approach may help persuade concerned property-owners to soften their NIMBYism.

“We haven’t built enough good stuff to change people’s perceptions and a lot of it is because we haven’t invested in design,” he says. “High density on its own is a positive thing, and as urban designers, we all talk about that, but you have to put more in it to get more out of it. We’re in the business of building communities. It’s not just about roads, and sections, and houses or apartments. The whole thing, taken as a whole, is what is needed to actually achieve the outcome of a high density, liveable, sustainable, community. And that takes a long time.”

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