Waterfront needs more people
Brand calls the public land between the city’s edge and the middle of the harbour a “bluespace” and says it often contains the most interesting action in a port city. Those working class comings and goings should be preserved and supported.
“To get waterfront development to work get a high density of people there. It’s important to get a good mix of working industrial use and contemporary residential, office, and commercial use,” said Brand, who specialises in urban design and studies how historical uses can inform future growth. “When you divorce the two completely you undermine the potential vibrancy.”
Wellington’s public process should change, she said, and city planners should look for financially viable ways to develop the centralised affordable housing and recreational spaces people need and want.
“Development has a negative connotation and people imagine it’s going to be what we’ve had in the past: large buildings with an exclusive aura,” said Brand, who doesn’t agree with advocates for only low-rise buildings. She thinks some structures should be eye-to-eye with the cruise ships, ferries, and shipping vessels that still enter the harbor and those buildings should be for everybody. “Look at Auckland’s Viaduct,” she said. “It’s very exclusive, full of upscale restaurants where you see upper class New Zealanders and tourists. You don’t see Maori. You don’t see Pacific Islanders. You’re giving them the message that it’s not their space.”
In 2008, UMR Research conducted a study of waterfront usage and found most Wellingtonians came to the city’s edge for recreational purposes, including walking, biking, skating, and running. That should expand, said Brand, to include kiteboarding, paddlesports, swimming, and fishing. “Even in the last few years you’ve seen the amount of waterfront activities growing.” She cited stand-up paddleboarding, a once obscure sport that’s gone mainstream here.
Cities like Wellington and Porirua, for example, should cater to how the locals are using what she calls the “bluespace” between land and sea. “Pacific Islanders and Maori like to eat in big groups. When they get to the waterfront there are no facilities or it’s expensive or it’s an exclusive zone and doesn’t feel comfortable.” She points to Sydney, where people can find play areas, fishing areas, fish cleaning areas, and cooking barbeques all within five metres of each other and the water. “If you put in the right facilities people will colonize them. They’re small, obvious things but they create huge connections that bring people to the public space.”
“Developers don’t want to develop buildings for poor people. At some point, government agencies, if they want these things, have to demand them of developers.” With a depressed real estate market, she said Wellington should get creative about what the city can offer to entice the right development.
“How much does a plot of water cost?” she asked, as opposed to the high cost of land. “Could you allow people to develop over water without inordinate costs?” She described structures ranging into the harbour rather than along its edge, with buildings on pilings or perched atop tidal energy generators, and with more space for aquaculture and opportunities for people to live on boats. “I’m interested in what you might have to do to inhabit water and how to create simple, affordable habitats for lower incomes. It would have to be a very innovative and brave developer to go down that track.”
Cheaper residences could be subsidized by increasing the value of what remains to be developed. Up for grabs are several sites on North Queen’s Wharf and the city should look at “declaiming some of it to increase the land value by putting it back to harbour. They did this in the Auckland Viaduct. You could develop it using piers, promenades, beaches, shorelines, islands and create a set of spaces that are much more broken up and have water in between them instead of just a slab of land.”
She also thinks development processes in Wellington are broken. “It isn’t working. I favour the urban design panel model,” she said, which tasks a variety of specialists from urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, property, and planning, with reviewing proposals prior to council approval. “It’s very successful at raising the bar in terms of design standards and community approval. But it’s expensive and councils won’t always go there.” Brand has been a member of past panels in Australia and Auckland and, since 2008, one in Christchurch, which is starting to see some innovative design responses to the earthquake damage.
That’s the crux of the development issue. “A lot of what I’m talking about isn’t going to get any traction until there’s some environmental disaster,” she said. “We’re a very young country and there’s a lot of potential to develop. Things like climate change and sea level rise might force us to reconsider solutions.”
- Amanda Witherell