Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Another Middle Class City Vision


Roads or cafes? That is not the question.
Dr Joel Cayford says that we are throwing away money when we invest in roads but creating value when we invest in downtown infrastructure (New Zealand Herald, 17 September 2012).  It’s a mistake to think state highways are not a critical part of our urban infrastructure, a mistake too many central road planners make – failing to appreciate that the highway's main role in and around Auckland is in the provision of urban arterials, the roads that keep the city itself connected and working.

And while I share Dr Cayford’s concern over the shaky rationale behind some current over-the-top  inter-city road projects, I cannot accept the idea that throwing a lot public money into the CBD is a rational alternative.  Nor do I accept that we should persist in a cargo cult mentality, demonstrated in his suggestion that the taxpayer should deliver more central city goodies to Aucklanders.

Creating a central city sink
Dr Cayford’s vision is one of even more public spending in an area already at risk from over-investment in public amenities.  This simply means that the city’s ratepayers will have to cough up even more because of over-optimistic – or plain misleading - extrapolations of demand and dollars and a contrived vision of what a central city might be.  Except that he would also have the taxpayers help pay for the party.  

At least he is in good company: Auckland’s spatial plan promotes the CBD as a sink for the city’s rates.
Even the occupants of the latest flagship quarter, the Wynyard Wharf, are said to require further rental subsidies from the city.   And while it was great to have Wynyard set up  for the Rugby World Cup – and we were lucky enough to have fair weather most of the time – it is more often echoing and empty than thriving and buzzing. 

The CBD is doing fine
Dr Cayford suggests that the problem is that the city centre is not a great place to visit.  I disagree, and I doubt that never-ending spending on me-too inner city infrastructure will drag more tourists down to New Zealand as he suggests. Incomes and exchange rates drive tourist numbers, as years of analysis for the tourism sector have demonstrated, topped up a little by awareness campaigns and airfare promotions. Having a city that bears a vague resemblance to the Mediterranean won't make any difference.

(He is right to diss a new convention centre, though: there is good reason not to gamble too many public dollars on a sunset industry).

Anyway, things  already look pretty good.  To quote Dr Cayford, :

Go down and sit at a table outside the old netshed on North Wharf about 5pm on a balmy, sunny afternoon, Saturday, Sunday, Friday - whenever - and watch the promenading that's happening here in Auckland. You could be on the Mediterranean. Kiwis have style and they like to show it, given an opportunity.

One problem is that the promenaders that Joel likes to watch are spread ever more thinly spread through fashionable quarters, and therein lies the risk. 

There has been a string of such initiatives, local nodes promoted by public investment in the built environment.  And they are all great places to be on their day, but they are also struggling to retain tenants and stay that way.   Princess Wharf, Queens Wharf, High Street and Vulcan Lane, the Chancery Quarter, Britomart, the Vector Centre, the University precinct, the Viaduct Basin: they are all worthy destinations, great spots to kick back in on a sunny day.

They are  nodes that, as long as they  retain some vibrancy, create the frame of a great CBD. Individually and collectively they contribute to a city centre that’s well worth a visit.  But we need to be thinking strategically now about how much more we can sustain, and how we are going to keep what we already have buoyant.

Time for fine-tuning and coming out
For a start, when it’s wet and blustery, winter or spring, the Mediterranean idyll goes out the window. 

There are things we can do to reduce dependence on our uncooperative  elements, and they needn’t cost a lot.  Wellington has created sheltered pedestrian ways in a climate  less comfortable (if somewhat drier) than Auckland’s.  We certainly do not need new tracts of paving, new collections of cafes, and over-capitalising infrastructure to get our CBD working better.  The new rail loop that Joel cites, for example, might make it easier for a few more residents from outer suburbs to visit the CBD, but it won’t do anything for the ambience and quality of places within it.  

Much current thinking seems simply to pander to the cafĂ© set and an image of our climate that is only true some of the time.  Queen Street appears to have bucked the trendy trend, though.  It caters increasingly to the take-away crowd and night owls.  While this perhaps reflect some of our much-touted diversity it seems to be a source of middle class angst.

Democratise the CBD
We need to consolidate what we have and to do so within a budget that reflects our means.  We should ideally aim to make the CBD relevant to citizens other than just the coffee set.

Maybe we could pursue initiatives that will democratise it: improve pedestrian links among existing nodes; open up  hidden spaces (St Patricks Square, Myers Park come to mind); create more places for kids to play; promote more informal gardens and greening; provide capacity for people to perform and not simply promenade in public places; provide for street art, street theatre, and street life; and  promote places where our local cultures can inject new life, all the time recognising the need for sheltered places and paths. 

These are the sorts of things that might put a little flesh on the CBD bones without relying on the begging bowl or  pandering to middle class conceits.  And they just might turn it into an asset for more Aucklanders.

No more LBF
If we need to do more, let’s do it within our means and in a way that is relevant to our citizens. Focus on what we’ve got and who we are.  And get off the me-too middle class spending bandwagon that seems to be driving Auckland’s civic leaders and planners, and amounts to little more than rates (and taxes?) being treated as some sort of central city Landlords’ Benevolent Fund. 

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