When Auckland's civic leaders signed up to a regional growth strategy, there was little disagreement over its basic intent. Accommodating Auckland's growing population in high-density developments within existing boundaries was seen as preferable to continued urban sprawl. If there were words of caution, they concerned the exact shape and character of that development, and specifically the need to avoid cheap and ugly blots on the building landscape. The warnings went unheeded. Intensification received the go-ahead, but Auckland leaders neglected to draw up rules that would guarantee sensitive development.
The upshot was graphically evident in the Weekend Herald's coverage of the apartment boom. Many developers have taken full advantage of the regulation vacuum to maximise their return without worrying about the likes of architectural merit, street appeal or the impact on the neighbourhood. Apartments that can be described only as eyesores litter the gateways to the city centre. Maximum bedrooms and minimum cost is the prevailing maxim. Not only has Auckland been deprived of the superb architectural innovation that has been the hallmark of superior developments in Europe and North America, but it has plumbed depths of cheerlessness previously associated with postwar London tower blocks.
Only now, four years after approving the growth strategy, are local bodies starting to address their oversight. In part, their hand has been forced by communities that fear slum-like and totally inappropriate developments invading their neighbourhoods. Community action groups, as in the case of Panmure, have been successful in modifying the likes of building heights. The message for local councils is that as much attention must be paid to the rights of existing residents as to those about to transform the area.
Given the transient nature of much of Auckland, it is, however, rather too much to expect local communities to act consistently as backstop and guardian. In the first instance, the responsibility must lie with the region's local bodies. Even now their response is somewhat unconvincing. Auckland City has introduced urban design and appearance control guidelines and an urban design panel. These are modelled on controls in Sydney and Santa Monica but, unlike the versions in those cities, are essentially optional. They also do not cover suburban areas that have some of the worst apartments and terraced housing. Only next year will an urban design plan for the whole city be introduced.
Auckland City's vision is of "well-designed blocks of varying heights and styles, pleasant streetscapes, and community-minded developments with amenities such as creches, shops and playgrounds". It can be done, has been achieved overseas, but has occurred here in regrettably rare instances. The part played by mandatory regulation in successful developments overseas is an issue that Auckland local bodies must consider. Already, the green light for the utterly unsympathetic Scene apartment blocks at Quay Park - essentially because they met the terms of the Resource Management Act - has hinted at the frailty of the council's guidelines.
The head of the centre-city design panel talks of raising the bar, rather than acting as "taste police". That is an admirable sentiment. In an ideal world, architects and developers should not be stifled by mind-numbing restriction. But a light-handed regime has produced a less than ideal Auckland skyline. If developments flout, or skirt around, design and appearance guidelines, local bodies may have little option but to introduce an element of compulsion. Indeed, the increasingly concerned and increasingly loud voice of community groups may leave them no choice whatsoever.