Matthew Bradbury: Vision of a clean green harbourside

Like waterfronts all around the world, Auckland's faces the slow but sure transformation from a heavy industrial area to a leisure and lifestyle centre of marinas, apartments and shops.

This is a long-term process and the recently released Auckland Waterfront Vision 2040, a joint project by Auckland City and the Auckland Regional Council, is a welcome effort to find out what all Aucklanders want there.

However, before we think about the new shape of our waterfront we must address its serious environmental problems. The environmental degradation of more than 100 years of heavy industrial use has grossly polluted the land and adjacent seabeds. And Auckland's CBD stormwater system still discharges untreated stormwater into the harbour.

So the question for Aucklanders seems to be: how do we fix the serious environmental problems while providing for the new infrastructure that will be needed for the change from industrial to lifestyle industries?

The winning design of the British Olympic bid may provide a clue.

The main Olympic events are to be held in the Lea Valley, East London. The Lea Valley is a patchwork of contaminated industrial sites, a flood plain leading to the Thames, and fragments of open spaces and canals.

The site is to be transformed by cleaning the grossly polluted industrial areas, restoring natural vegetation, and building the massive transport infrastructure required for Olympic events.

The master planners, the environmental-design planning agency EDAW and Foreign Office architects, are building a 202ha park for one of the greatest logistical exercises.

The successful Olympic bid offers a strong model of urban development for Auckland. The London park has been designed to fix the site's environmental problems and provide extensive infrastructure requirement for an Olympic event.

What would the Auckland waterfront look like if we were to use the same design strategy as London?

It would need a major environmental regeneration effort to clean all the contaminated sites and seabeds. The many tonnes of contaminated fill could be collected on local sites and treated with bio-remediation techniques to kill or neutralise harmful toxins.

The existing stormwater discharge from the three central Auckland catchments - Freemans Bay, the central city, and Parnell - would have to be treated and cleaned before emptying into the Waitemata.

It would take a major investment to build the infrastructure to clean and filter the polluted stormwater before releasing it into the harbour.

The building of an environmental infrastructure to clean toxic spoil and stormwater is a long-term project that will take many years and cost a great deal of money. However, we can think about this new infrastructure not only as a functional engineering solution but also as an opportunity to make a new kind of public space.

A large area would be needed for treating stormwater, but the treatment process doesn't have to be hidden behind a wall or result in a smelly swamp. In the newly developed Potsdam Platz, in the centre of Berlin, all the urban stormwater is collected into a series of decorative water features, which clean the water before emptying it into the nearby Spree.

These environmental clean-up operations are also great opportunities to reintroduce Auckland's unique ecotones to the waterfront.

Plants can help with repairing contaminated soils, and urban stormwater can be filtered and cleaned before it reaches the harbour.

We could imagine the waterfront slowly developing as a network of green spaces. Auckland's indigenous coastal plants, pohutukawa forest, freshwater wetlands, salt meadows, combining with our great gardening traditions, Maori and Pakeha, would all make a green infrastructure which could connect the city to the water, and build a waterfront park where it is possible to fish and swim.

All this has to be paid for through real-estate development, the usual mix of apartments and business, cafes and restaurants, art galleries and nightclubs.

Rather than the present rather sterile urban environment of Princes Wharf and Viaduct Harbour, the unexpected juxtaposition of the new buildings with the new waterfront park could lead to all sorts of interesting urban possibilities. Imagine working, playing and living in a constantly changing landscape that is unique to Auckland and having all the amenities of a busy and dense city life.

And aren't Aucklanders more comfortable with parks rather than European-type urban squares? Auckland has made two attempts at plazas: Aotea Square and QE2 Square. Aotea Square's recent woes are well known and QE2 Square was turned into a bus interchange without any protest.

Where Aucklanders come together is the park. Look at Mission Bay on a summer's evening, the barbie after the footie game, and how we flock to the beach in summer. These are Auckland's unique civic spaces.

Auckland has a great opportunity on the waterfront to develop a new kind of urban development, a landscape urbanism, generated from our own unique place to make a great waterfront park with a difference, a new kind of park in which people can not only play but also live and work.

* Matthew Bradbury, Fulbright Fellow 2003-04, is a senior lecturer at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Unitec.

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