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No more defenders of design: Auckland Council plans to close its Auckland Design Office

Pedestrian-friendly O’Connell St. Image credit: Kent Lundberg.

The team responsible for celebrated urban design changes around downtown Auckland – such as the widening of the High St footpath and shared spaces along Federal and O’Connell St – now has an uncertain future. Auckland Council plans to disband the Auckland Design Office (ADO) and redistribute staff into other departments, or disestablish their jobs. The move is being regarded by many as a blow to the idea that Auckland can design its way to being a better city, and a win for bureaucracy over creativity.  

Auckland Council is planning on closing its Auckland Design Office (ADO) in an effort to meet its budget targets. The ADO was established in 2014 to shape Auckland to be a world-class, design-led city and deliver urban design decisions that would improve Auckland’s streets, neighbourhoods and public buildings for its inhabitants.

It was formed from a previous Council department, the Built Environment Unit, is made up of a combination of urban designers, architects, landscape architects and planners.

These creative minds have talked openly and passionately to the public over the years about the ADO’s vision for the future of Auckland.

The department was led for the majority of time by high-profile ‘design champion’ Ludo Campbell-Reid. He previously told Idealog that the ADO team’s biggest vision was to build on the city’s light rail Queen St plans by creating a pedestrian haven for the whole of the Queen St valley, from Mayoral Dr down to the waterfront.

He never got the see that vision to fruition, as he left the department in October after 13 years, citing that “It feels like a natural time for new adventures, both professionally and personally”.

Five months later, the Council is planning to close the ADO and shuffle staff into different areas of the Council, such as the planning department, resource consents and the development programme office, or disestablish their jobs.

Some of the changes made around Auckland CBD helped by ADO.

A total of 11 people’s roles have been recommended to be discontinued in the proposal, including Campbell-Reid’s since unfilled position of general manager of ADO.

“First and foremost, the urban design capability within Auckland Council is vital and will continue to be. This proposal does not remove that capability – rather it seeks to enhance it,” Auckland Council’s new chief of strategy Megan Tyler said in a statement.

“We are proposing to embed these skills and expertise into different areas of the council closely associated with urban design functions to achieve improved outcomes and to encourage a more inter-disciplinary way of delivering design outcomes.

“I’m acutely aware of the impact that proposals for change have on our people and their families, and I’m committed to supporting them throughout this consultation. However, it’s important we respect the consultation process that is now underway and to give those impacted a chance to provide feedback before any final decisions are made.”

She also confirmed that the decision is being made in an effort to cut costs at the Council.

“There will always be tight constraints on how much we can increase our workforce, and this proposed change is part of the on-going work across all the council to meet our FTE and budget targets for this financial year,” Tyler said.

The ADO was heralded with reviving Auckland’s streets as public spaces and making pedestrians feel more welcome around bustling corners of the city often prioritised for cars. This included strategically placed planters and polka dots at intersections on Shortland St and Sale St, as well as setting up shared spaces on Elliott St and Fort St. In October, High St’s footpath on one side was widened by 65 metres to make walking easier for pedestrians.

The widened footpath on High St. Image credit: Cam Perkins.

Campbell-Reid previously told Idealog, “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.”

Senior writer at the NZ Herald Simon Wilson, who covers the Council’s moves in-depth and wrote a column on the decision today, says the conclusion that can be drawn is that there will no longer be as much progress made for pedestrians around town.

“The implication is that the city is going to slow down its programme of transforming itself into a more people-friendly place and I think that’s a worry,” Wilson says. “It’s not that they were very fast – I’ve often been pretty critical of them for not going faster – but there was obviously tight bureaucratic constraints, and people at the Council were worried about what they were doing.

“Without the ADO raising these issues all the time – pushing Auckland Transport, pushing the Council – that kind of thinking is going to take a backseat more and it’s a tragic thing for the city.”

He says the decision is also partly a reflection of design not being as highly valued as other roles held within big organisations.

“The idea that you can design your way to a better city, from the point-of-view of functionality and aesthetics, hasn’t been well embraced. What we have in Auckland as well as in many places is far too much authority in the hands of lawyers, accountants and engineers, and not enough in people who have an urban design or more people-focused approach.”

Wilson says it’s also ironic that the vision set forward by Auckland Council for the future of the city speaks a lot to the design of the city.

“If you look at the Council’s own proclamations of who we are and where we’re going – they’re full of the thinking that comes out of the design office. With Auckland 2050, a design-led city, the ADO were instrumental in putting that thinking together.

“Yet although the words are there, if you sack all the people doing the work, you’re not going to get the work done.”

A meeting with the mayor, chief executive and chief of strategy about the decision is taking place today.

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