Just how super can this city be without vision?

Issues of design could play an important role in the future of the Super City. Photo / Dean Purcell
Issues of design could play an important role in the future of the Super City. Photo / Dean Purcell

It seems ridiculous for a city to cast itself on to the turbulent seas of mayors' visions.

I was part of a trio representing the Auckland branch of the Institute of Architects in its submissions to the royal commission when it was working towards its fine model for the reconstituted city (that is the well-considered one that got away when eviscerated overnight by the politicians).

The basis of our submission (which was described by a commissioner as one of the most useful they had heard) was that in the eventual structure of the new city - no matter how many sub-cities, mayors and local bodies finally eventuated - there should be a number of clearly defined mechanisms which encouraged, no, demanded, that the design of the city be paramount in the long-term vision.

Surely, the design and maintenance of an overarching vision for Auckland is at the heart of the exercise to improve the governance of the city. Any organisational structure will only be successful if it recognises and promotes the idea that the city, in all its multi-faceted aspects, needs to be designed in the widest sense of the word.

This involves much more than the physical, and should include issues of social, economic, and cultural import. It needs to cover all aspects of the city, such as physical qualities, organisation, environment, identity, affordability, security and safety, and should reach across all socio-economic layers.

There are a number of ways this could happen, and the commitment to design should occur at many levels.

There could be a group charged with developing an overall long-term sense of direction, a vision which would outlast the relatively high turnover of mayors.

It seems ridiculous for a city to cast itself on to the turbulent seas of mayors' visions, which of necessity need to be self-promoting in order to garner votes, when those mayors are being replaced on a three-year cycle.

Cities develop with agonising slowness, and that is how it should be. To lurch from vision to vision at the swapping of the mayor seems absurd.

Such a vision group, let's call it the Auckland Design Organisation, would assist the mayor, the council, the council-controlled organisations and the local bodies to understand the complexities of the city, at all the levels where decisions are made.

A number of subsidiary groups would develop design at more local levels and to finer detail. Council officers would then be responsible for implementation.

Such groups would put design on the table, rather than hiding it in over-worded policy frameworks, strategy documents, scheme statements and the like.

Such a focus on design would force us to accept that we are designing the city, and that we must continue to do so.

Only then will we be able to confront the implications of decisions we are about to make. Only then will the design process be made transparent, exhibited and debated.

Only then will we take responsibility for the design of the city, and possibly begin to do it better.

Recent examples of this blatantly not happening are the Queens Wharf competition and the Mt Eden prison. Whatever the process which led to the outcomes (both perceived as unfortunate) they obviously came about without any reference to a perceptible overarching vision into which they might fit.

In the case of the wharf, "Party Central" drove the process, rather than a comprehensive urban design study which demonstrated that Queens Wharf was the ideal location for the overseas passenger terminal.

With the prison, whatever decisions and processes approved the new edifice, apparently they were not guided by a visible three-dimensional city model (either physical or computer generated) which demonstrated the ideal maximum contour to which buildings in the area should conform, and which would have exposed the coming aggressive penetration of that shape by the new building.

The design issues in front of the city design organisation would range from city limits to buses, from infrastructure to rubbish bins, from economic balances to social equities.

The scope would include an insistence upon transparency about the physical, social and economic shape of the city, through to specific aspects of identity. The design organisation, for example, would never have let our fleet of wonderfully iconic yellow buses, an identity for Auckland if ever there was one, be sold off to become red, white and blue billboards for everything from TV programmes to lingerie.

Bravely, our city has submitted itself to being fundamentally transformed. Whatever the outcome, we now need to keep that design process at the forefront of our awareness, to ensure that we design the city onwards from the very good one it currently is to being an even better one.

Not the insecure and self-conscious "world-class", "iconic" or "best in Australasia".

Just a great place to be and to visit.

It would be interesting to hear from those designing our city if and how such a long-term and highly visible design process - enabling public comprehension and debate of the outcomes - is being incorporated into the proposed city structure.

Pete Bossley is an Auckland architect, recently chairman of the Auckland Branch of the Institute of Architects. He has been Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Unitec.


- NZ Herald

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