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A coming of age: How Auckland City can flourish from an angsty teenager into a young adult

Auckland is in the midst of a metamorphosis.  The city is standing on the same precipice as many other cities around the world, where it’s considering how to balance social, economic, and environmental welfare alongside a growing population set to reach 2.4 million by 2050. It presents a huge challenge for local urbanists, who are tasked with building a livable city without resorting to untenable sprawl or futile slums. However, there is light streaming onto Auckland’s urban posterity. New forms of density are being erected, diverse transport modes are mobbing the streets, and a new culture is running through the currents of the Waitematā. But, are Auckland’s past pains too broken to remedy? Findlay Buchanan talks to the architects, the planners, and the urban progressives, who are helping to reshape Auckland city. In part one of a series, Ludo Campbell-Reid speaks of increased mobility in the city space. 

The transformation of Auckland is hinged on multiple key components: the Auckland Plan 2050, the City Centre Masterplan, and the work of Panuku, among others. However, much of the debate has been centred on the Auckland Plan 2050 – a lofty document noted for its optimism in the face of increased pressure on housing and transport networks, widening enclaves of inequality, and an increasingly unpredictable environment. But, according to Auckland council design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid, the city is set to capture real change.

In an interview with Idealoglast year he proclaimed: “People have been dreaming about a better city for many, many years. It hasn’t been achieved in the past, it’s being achieved now. The runway has been built to get this to happen, different politicians, different sides of the political spectrum, and progressive private developers have come together to make it happen. There are currently more cranes in the Auckland skyline than any city in America.

“We’ve grown up as a city, and grown up cities do grown-up things, this is about being more efficient with the finite land available. It’s time to make some bold decisions, it’s called leadership.”

To do so, Auckland city will grapple three key challenges: high population growth, shared prosperity, and environmental degradation. All three of these are interconnected, and all will require creativity: to build flexibly with less space, to be resourceful, and to embrace practical new technologies. Mostly, the plan puts focus onto central Auckland city, which is currently in the throes of a pre-America's Cup frenzy while representing ‘one of the fastest growing residential areas in the country’. Here, we cast an eye on a few of these exciting developments that will feed growth in downtown Auckland.

More movement

A key part to the future of Auckland is mobility. It’s a topic that divides, as car bastions and hippie cyclists bash bonnets over what is needed to fix congestion. Some want more roads in the regions. Others demand cycle lanes, and a few have sipped the autonomous vehicle kool aid. The voices have only grown louder as more technologies contest the city space.  Old transport modes – trams, trains, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians – have met new innovations – Lime scooters, Onzo bikes, Ubers and electric fleets – creating some disorderly mayhem in downtown Auckland. Subsequently, the regimented urban layout does not match the newfound diversity.

Campbell-Reid says, “If we look at cities, the majority of a city’s public realm, the space between buildings, is taken up by road space. In some cases it can be up to 70 percent of public space is given to the movement of vehicles as a priority. To me, this is very perplexing because streets in most cities operate at peak capacity for only five percent of the day.  The interesting point about vehicles is they are parked most of the time – for example, the average European car is stationary for 92 percent of the day.  So, we end up designing our streets to accommodate rush-hour traffic.”

The issue is that for years, Auckland city wasn’t designed for vibrancy, but for cars. It languishes in high rates in car ownership, heavy investment into roading, and rusty public transport networks. The effects have been widespread, from perennial traffic congestion, to ghastly air pollution levels, as well as a reported 64 deaths on Auckland roads last year, albeit, sometimes real change dawns from bad situations.

On paper, there are many reasons to be positive about the city’s future. Firstly, it will pedestrianise Queen St by discouraging non-essential vehicles into the area, but supports those making non-discretionary trips for emergency services, deliveries, rubbish collections, existing businesses and residents, and mobility trips, who will find it easier to access the area without congestion. Additionally, it will offer a light rail tram service, which will run down the middle of Queen St.

Campbell-Reid says, “If you put light rail in the middle of Queen St, you basically create a pedestrian haven on that street. It will become a dramatically humanised street. It will feel like a transit mall, where trams run up the centre, and people will run and walk up the sides.”

The changes will spread onto the areas that touch Queen St, which will inadvertently become a dead-end for motorists. Then, according to Campbell-Reid, pedestrian friendly streets will spread throughout the city.

Campbell-Reid says, “You have the opportunity to take those streets back for the people as well because nobody will drive down those streets anymore. The bigger vision from my team is to create a pedestrian haven for the whole of the Queen St valley, which runs from Mayoral Dr right down to the waterfront.”

The benefits of pedestrian friendly streets are vast. Certainly, it can fix congestion and pollution levels, but it can also be a catalyst for social change. Open public spaces tend to invite diversity, where children and elderly can safely share the city space. For example, in the Spanish city of Pontevedra, since the expansion of its pedestrian space, crime rates have dropped significantly, while the rate of kids who roam the street has increased tenfold.

Alongside dedicated car-free zones, the council plans to dig up and refurbish old public transport methods, to create equitable transport networks for those in the regions.

“We’ve been given a strong mandate from the mayor to do this for all of Auckland, not just downtown Auckland. There is often a sense that downtown Auckland gets a lot more attention. On one level this is because it is somewhat more promoted, or easily talked about. But in terms of spend, $27 billion of infrastructure investment is happening in the regions, but only $1 billion is happening in downtown Auckland.”

The light rail that will bustle down the centre of Auckland is not a new concept, but one that harks back to the 1950s, when Auckland had a dependable tram system ‘with one of the highest rates of ridership’. However, as cars invaded the city and service costs increased, tram networks were replaced with cheaper forms of public transport: buses. Now, over fifty years later, Auckland’s bus system has struggled to keep up with the demand of city growth.

Auckland City 1949 sourced Alexander Turnbull Library

The new proposed light rail will run through the former route, plus replace some of Auckland’s busiest bus routes. It hopes to link the city centre with Māngere and the Auckland’s northwest within the next ten years. Moreover, the City Rail Link is also planned for 2024: a 3.5 km long double-track rail tunnel underneath Auckland's city centre between Britomart Transport Centre and Mount Eden Railway Station. The new proposed light rail will strengthen regional transport, provide accessibility into and out of the city centre and ease congestion, according to Campbell-Reid, who argues the government needs to start urgently.

Campbell-Reid says, “The key to light rail is that it will enable transit orientated living; specifically, along the corridor from the city centre to Mangere. This urban corridor is already expected to accommodate around 30 percent of Auckland’s population growth and 36 percent of Auckland’s employment growth over the next 30 years.  This population, already the size of Hamilton, could access a rapid transit system within a five-minute walk.

“If you’re going to build a rapid transit system for Auckland, my advice is to start now and start building from the airport to Mangere first.  Prior to the America’s Cup in 2020 we cannot accommodate the construction programme of this scale in the city centre at this time.”

These plans hope to provide access for everybody, ensuring inclusivity for those in deprived socio-economic areas, too, as well as the less-abled bodied. Look out for part two, where we talk to Women in Urbanism about how to create safer streets, and in part three, we discuss building tall and attractively with Nat Cheshire. 

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