Mat Brown: Good design will help our cities grow up, not out


Ten years ago, Auckland was in the wake of the Rugby World Cup at Eden Park.The city, boosted by a temporary tourist population, had enjoyed an atmosphere of togetherness and excitement. The “Fan Trail” reminded us that it’s okay to walk in our city, and when you did, interesting things might happen.

At the same time, we were debating the benefits of the Unitary Plan. Central to the plan was the densification of Auckland; leaning the city towards a place that enabled the same kind of vibrancy we’d experienced during the World Cup, all the time. We chose, in the end, to strengthen our city and slow down urban sprawl.

I wrote at the time about the nature of the debate that was underway. Many things have changed since then. Others haven’t.

Auckland has begun to see the benefits of the Unitary Plan. Investment has followed the opportunities presented and the city is a more interesting and exciting place to be. We’ve seen in an increase in housing choice and our infrastructure has benefited from a population that is close enough to use it.

Densification is now mainstream. The bipartisan announcement of amendments to the Resource Management Act, designed to enable greater housing supply, shows that the densification of our cities is recognised as a significant national imperative. This, coupled with the National Policy Statement on Urban Development, is a clear signal that our cities will grow up, not out.

Despite these advancements, the role of good design remains largely absent from public debate, although there’s hope. In looking to illustrate the potential effects of the proposed RMA changes Auckland Council and the Ministry for the Environment have released images of anticipated outcomes. The difference is striking, and largely for effect, but demonstrate the importance of good design.

What we build affects the way we feel, and it’s fair to say that an increase in density in our residential zones will change the amenities available in and around our homes.Good design is the process that mediates those effects and Auckland Council is right to be concerned about the removal of any mechanism that ensures a quality outcome.

And so, I find myself, 10 years after Richie McCaw held the Rugby World Cup aloft, reiterating the same message: “We need not be scared of what densification might bring but rather we should shift our attention to understanding it and ensuring that when it does happen, it’s done well.”

It’s essential that this most recent debate about density is coupled with a debate about desired design outcomes. What sort of homes do we need and how do we make sure we get them?

Density is happening and it’s necessary. The debate is no longer about whether or not to hold on to our quarter-acre dream, but rather how we create new dreams in our cities.

– Mat Brown is a principal at architecture firm Warren and Mahoney.

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