The Global Cities initiative is looking at ways to help Auckland become a better place to live and work, writes Ruth Le Pla.

Examples from as far afield as Vancouver, Copenhagen, Beijing and London are fuelling an initiative to spark new ideas for Auckland's future.

Sustainable options for high-density living and a more integrated transport system are on the agenda for talks between Auckland City and the Global Cities Institute of professional services consultancy Aecom. The parties have been working together for the past three months as part of Aecom's pro-bono Global Cities Initiative.

Together with the New Zealand Institute, Global Cities is also looking at the economics of future growth opportunities for Auckland.

The bulk of the work will be finished by October and will feed into a workshop and presentation.

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Stas Louca, Aecom's New Zealand group leader (architecture: design and planning), says the project springboards from Auckland Mayor Len Brown's declared vision to make Auckland the world's most liveable city.

In its 2010 index, The Economist ranked Auckland as the 10th most liveable city in the world. The 2010 Mercer Quality of Living survey rated Auckland fourth in the world. (Sydney came in 10th and Wellington 12th.)

The council's Auckland Unleashed document, released on March 23 this year, outlines thinking behind the Auckland Plan which Brown sees as a blueprint for developing the region over the next 30 years.

Louca says his organisation's research does not seek to undermine the city's 30-year plan. "We see our job as potentially challenging some of those ideas but, more importantly, trying to unlock hidden potential which maybe hasn't been discovered. It's about saying there may be other ways to look at things."

He says there is no binding commitment for Auckland City to act on any of the institute's recommendations and the project's timeframe allows limited opportunities for public consultation.

Ree Anderson, Auckland City's manager regional strategy, community and cultural policy, says staff from the various Council-Controlled Organisations (CCOs) are attending Global Cities project forums.

She welcomes opportunities to pick up on trends around the world, and she sees it as a good opportunity for shared learning and input into what's happening in Auckland. She says council is also working with a large number of other groups and agencies on the future of Auckland.

Each year the Global Cities Institute teams up with a selected city to examine its urban issues. So far it has completed a project on Phoenix-Tucson in the United States. It is also now working with Beijing and Jeddah.

The institute is also able to draw on the collective expertise of Aecom's 45,000 employees who provide technical and management support services in some 125 countries.

Louca says many cities provide good ideas on urban development. But there often seems to be difficulty in joining up the dots. "It's hard to get a fully integrated approach to thinking about cities."

He says the best work stems from collaboration: "the bouncing of different ideas between a planner, architect, engineer, economist, environmentalist and a building scientist, for example. You generate the best ideas when you have all these people in the room."

Auckland is set to grow significantly in the next 20 years, increasing demand from business and industry for more land.

Three years ago, a Capacity for Growth Study estimated Auckland had 2406 hectares of business-zoned land. This represented just 19 years of development potential.

In the next two decades, half a million more people are expected to settle in the city. This will make Auckland home to almost 40 per cent of New Zealand's total population.

According to the council's plan, the city will need an additional 330,000 dwellings by 2040. Auckland Unleashed says higher density housing does not have to mean high-rise living.

Louca warns that many people see densification as synonymous with poor design.

"They get very worried because they remember ideas of housing - particularly post-war - that didn't work. We're not saying density is the answer to all things because it clearly isn't. You've got to take in the context of every city that you're exploring."

Louca says well-designed and appropriate high-density living can create walkable cities, enhance sustainable development and eat up less land. "Done correctly, it can improve the nature of our cities."

He favours a mixed-use model of development. He cites as an example the UK's Tesco Metro miniature supermarkets which are integrated into the ground layer of buildings in high-density schemes.

"People can literally go down the stairs of their apartment to pick up their veges or groceries."

He says that, rather than retro-fitting buildings as their use changes, sustainability must be built in right from the start. Large folding walls, and folding and sliding doors, for example, would enable flexible use of buildings.

As in other parts of the world, affordable housing here could expand from a focus on rental accommodation to encompass shared ownership schemes.

Louca notes rapid demographic changes will fuel demand for more flexible and adaptable housing. In London, purpose-built live-work units cater to the growing number of single parents who want to work from home.

In a typical scenario, the individuals in a two or three-person company band together to buy a large residential apartment which incorporates a combined dedicated work area.

Partition walls, folding or sliding doors clearly demarcate the working area from each person's living space.

In London, Southwark Council's aspiration to provide affordable housing has led to the development of adaptable living units. As a family evolves over time, they can change their premises to suit new requirements.

When the children leave home or go to university, for example, walls can be shifted or rooms opened up easily.

"This is just a different way to start thinking about housing for the future," says Louca.

Global Cities' work on how Auckland could develop a more integrated transport system is drawing on examples from around the world.

Louca says Auckland can learn from Vancouver and Copenhagen which both provide systems with good "connectiveness".

"By that, I mean all parts of the city have to work harmoniously together. Connectiveness is one of the keys to making cities better."

He cites Toronto as an "unusual but good" example of a city whose transport system has been designed around its climate which can include heavy snowfalls. The underground system enables people to move around large parts of the city without having to emerge above ground.

Even London's transport system provides a good example. "Although old, the system is very well connected. There's a fully integrated bus and underground system and a good rail system. People have choice and that's really important."

Louca says Auckland has the potential to improve its liveability by applying an integrated approach to transport. "But that will require everybody to come together."

In a separate work stream, Aecom economists are talking with the New Zealand Institute to tease out new thinking on the economics of Auckland's future growth opportunities.

Louca says this includes how to make better use of existing resources.

It is also broadening thinking to examine how Auckland's economic profile will fit into the wider New Zealand economy in the future.

"When it comes to economics, Auckland is the engine room for New Zealand," says Louca.

"So how, for example, do our thoughts about innovation change? How do our cities become more sustainable in terms of their economics? What do we need to improve? All these things are being challenged as well."