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Why small towns deserve the luxury of urban design

What is urban design and why does it seem to be the privilege of the cities or the densely populated or affluent areas? Isn’t it something that should be afforded to all of our towns? Design, to me, is something that solves a problem in a creative and pleasant way, addressing human needs and engaging the senses. 

Is urban design reserved only for those that appreciate art, or creativity, or freedom, or genuine community – or perhaps reserved just for those that can afford it? Of course, the funding for what we consider urban design invariably comes from local government, so one would logically conclude it to be a democratic right. 

A year ago, we relocated our industrial design business Indemic and our family to Inglewood, North Taranaki, a small rural outpost of some 3200 people close to where I grew up. Some might say we were refugees of the Auckland affordability crisis, but for us it was always on the cards – the when was only ever in question. That came in the lead-up to the birth of our third child and the realisation that our small, rented, brick-and-tile unit in Devonport had served us well. It also helped that we could pick our business up and move it wherever we pleased.

We have stepped worlds away – 15km inland, where there are no decile-11 schools and a serious lack of quality cafés (there are the best pies in the land, though). Devonport was great to us – it provided an almost-too-comfortable place to start life for our two eldest boys and we had the luxury of choosing between Cheltenham beach or Torpedo bay, depending on which way the wind swung. There were playgrounds aplenty, the easy commute to downtown Auckland, and all the trappings of city life in a small-town feel.

In our newly chosen hometown, we had eternal faith that community spirit would prevail and beneath the simple exterior, we would find a whole lot of things good for us that we couldn’t find in the city we’d left behind. One year on into our journey, we’re convinced that the move has proven to be everything we had hoped. 

From locally grown food and produce, to small manufacturing firms doing very innovative things, to the people just willing to give something a go. There also hasn’t been one conversation about the price of housing. People here are engaging, friendly and hard-working.

Inglewood, New Zealand.

So, what is daily life like in a place like Inglewood? We are nine minutes’ drive away from New Plymouth and lack some of the modern conveniences, like a decent supermarket or café. Our town suffers the same ailments most towns of our size do, such as being heavily dependent on cars, even though we are smaller than most urban environments. With big roads and lots of heavy traffic, poor cycling infrastructure, and a lack of pedestrian-friendly features and unified and connected public spaces, we lack places where people want to spend their time as a community.  

We fall within the governing jurisdiction of the New Plymouth District Council, but one might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. We have the wealthiest council in all the land per capita, yet drive through our town on any given day and you could be forgiven for thinking that some time circa-1995 we were a little bit forgotten. It isn’t a reflection of the enthusiasm and confidence of the locals, nor the local businesses. 

It would seem that on the surface our little town, and no doubt countless others of a similar size and governance, simply don’t matter all that much to the powers-that-be. 

Whilst New Plymouth boasts a multi-million-dollar coastal walkway, many beautiful parks and playgrounds, well-kept garden berms and of course the infamous council-funded, free-entry, Len-Lye like it is suffering many of the tired adages the prophets of doom in the big cities (aka Shamubeel Eaqub) have cast upon us. Unfortunately, it’s not for the reasons such experts might expect.

We have two primary schools and one high school, plenty of local employment and high home ownership rates, as well as a growing population. Unfortunately, we don’t have the Government knocking on our door offering us to host the next America’s Cup, with all the investment and business opportunities such an event affords (it helps to have an ocean). Our roadside gardens are rarely tended to, a stark contrast from watching the plants being renewed in Devonport on a four-week cycle just to keep up appearances for the benefit of the tourists. Our footpaths could probably do with a spruce up, the cycle lanes’ seal stops in the middle of them and public art or celebration of local culture is scant.

We are a fork in the road of SH3 and SH3A, a nasty piece of roading design around which a town has had to adapt. Inglewood was designed in a time when traffic volumes were nowhere near what they are today and all essential services were within two blocks of the heart of town. That heart has slowly but surely eroded in response to ever-increasing demands of road transport, and the community has been left in its wake. It’s a story that could be told 1000 times over in small-town New Zealand, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant. Yet in an age of soaring house prices and overpopulated cities, our towns could be one of the many solutions. 

A fundamental issue is that the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) dictates to us what goes in our own town, as is the case when you have a state highway running right through your town centre. In fact, almost all governance issues affecting the daily life of the people here are ultimately determined by people who don’t live here, and who don’t see or live with the issues on a daily basis. 

Walk down the street and ask someone that walks or cycles what they believe to be the main issues facing our town? It will invariably be the volume of road traffic, the design of pedestrian areas, and a lack of crossings. Several hundred logging trucks and milk tankers a day, tens of thousands of traffic movements, no crossings for a  2km stretch of road within close proximity to local schools, no turning or median strips, nor features which promote the slow movement of traffic through the town – such is NZTAs mandate (courtesy of the trucking lobby) to improve commuter times from New Plymouth to Hawera and beyond. NZTA is a blister on the ass of small-town New Zealand and it’s time we used community wellbeing and connectedness as the single biggest influencer on traffic policy and small-town urban design, not GDP per tonne of low-value commodities moved. 

Wide footpaths, connected cycleways, awesome outdoor spaces, parks, gardens, engaging play areas, murals, a town pitch that isn’t ‘Stop, Shop, Enjoy’…we have a way to go yet. Urban design is about investment in our people and their wellbeing, and feeling like we aren’t just a forgotten outpost of some bygone era. We could both beautify and improve our health and social outcomes through the simple application of good urban design. We could go a step further by being able to make some of our own decisions too, like moving the main road somewhere else. 

It worked in Waipu, and Cambridge isn’t looking back either. Huntly’s the next up-and-comer by my reckoning. Wouldn’t it be great to think a small town such as ours had a high-level vision for the next 100 years? Ask the locals this question and great ideas would spring forth. 

Walking and cycling infrastructure is one thing, but what about how to combat the embedded car culture? We’re on a barely-used rail link running from Hawera to New Plymouth, and thousands make the one-person commute by car each day to the big factories in Eltham and Hawera, yet the rail sits largely idle. Recently a railway car did weekend rides into the city, much like in a bygone era. Not only was it an absolutely magical experience, it was also much quicker than driving to downtown New Plymouth’s waterfront. One could imagine a modern battery-electric train once again running a regular service, and my hunch is you are on to a winner for future growth, and reducing traffic impact through our small towns (and even through New Plymouth city) and of course, re-empowering and reconnecting people to their communities and fellow neighbours. 

Of course, we chose to live here. And the irony of being the recent Aucklander bemoaning the lack of urbanness whilst pining for some good urban design is not lost on me. But after 20+ years of living in cities, combined with the knowledge of good design and its influence on culture and human behaviour, as well as the rearing of our little brood, 

I’m acutely aware that the power of a few small but well-considered decisions could positively impact our little piece of paradise and many other towns like ours, enriching the quality of daily life for our children and families. 

It fills me with hope at the potential – as well as despair – of the status quo. Small-town New Zealand would embrace urban design as quickly as an Aucklander would say yes to a brunch date. Why don’t we get a slice of the fun? Perhaps it’s time for a minister for small town New Zealand.

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