When it comes to downtown Auckland's future, we have to ask whether we have what it takes to make a great city by conscious design, rather than expecting delivery from a collision of market forces; short-term political cycles; no rate increase mandates; a lack of central government in regional strategy; the risk-averse environmental planning; and a persistent "yeoman" farmer mentality?
Recent one-off initiatives of the Regional Development Fund, America's Cup and Special Housing Areas indicate such strategic shortcomings can be overcome by a concerted effort.
The pandemic has caught downtown Auckland in a struggle to establish public transport, develop a residential population, stage mega-events and make compelling places.
Make no mistake, the exodus is serious with pre-Covid figures of around 90,000 office workers and 60,000 students a day dropping by at least 30 to 50 per cent. While this sudden social change doesn't necessarily spell the end of such urban centres, downtown needs to adapt to retain gravity quickly.
The calls for the pedestrianisation of Queen St go back at least as far as the 1926 design competition for a civic centre in upper Queen St, when the waterfront became industrialised.
Queen St is centrally important to Auckland's downtown, as it is a physically well-defined spine that ties and links the whole inner city over difficult, hilly terrain.
But the future of downtown has to deal with major constraints, such as a dominance of office space; competition from Wynyard Quarter; and the demands of a cross-town movement network.
Against such heavy-hitters, the continuing instalments of the 2012 central city masterplan or the soon-to-be-started upgrade of Queen St to form a shared path and busway can only be regarded now as lightweight contenders.
Fundamentally, Queen St lacks the necessary winning equation of large numbers of people 24/7, along a wide path connecting to two anchors or destinations.
As several commentators have pointed out, there are educative precedents in other cities such as Barcelona's Las Ramblas or Sydney's George St. Apart from supplying examples of robust fit-outs, these also point to the importance of having anchors at either end. In the case of Las Ramblas, its Placa de Catalunya - the city's main square - at one end connecting to its celebrated waterfront. With George St, it is the rail station at one end and the harbour bridge and Opera House around the cove at the other.
We can start to turn this equation in Auckland's downtown favour by thinking boldly. Maybe it's only three steps away.
Step one: Mid-town anchor. Mid-Queen St has been hit hardest with the student exodus, and this is where there needs to be a really strong anchor as the uptown barbell. The gamechanger here is to move Auckland Council back into the Aotea Precinct from its embattled Albert St premises. Imagine, a new purpose-built civic headquarters on the St James Theatre site, complete with large video screens together with a city museum, opening out on to larger Aotea Square.
Step two: Re-colonise Queen St. The upgrade that is about to start is a half-measure, as buses and people are not the ideal mix. Instead, create a series of broad pedestrian-only segments, while allowing cross-traffic at Mayoral Drive, Wellesley, Victoria and Customs streets. Detail could be set in warm-coloured paving, with a great light show and abstract river motifs. In tandem, a massive adaptation of office buildings; rents incentivised, premises improved and converted in their use.
Step three: The big idea is that downtown Auckland is the centre of the glorious Waitematā Harbour but is currently half-open at best and needs a wider connection with its "raison d'etre" to the east. Firstly, with the Admiralty Steps (promised eight years ago in lieu of the loss of QEII Square) and the start of decamping the Port of Auckland - hopefully to a place with nationally strategic benefits. Secondly, invest in a multi-use sports stadium (see the 42,000-seat Oracle Park in central waterfront San Francisco), to anchor a substantial mixed-use quarter and boost the Downtown catchment past its tentative status.
The big picture is that, in the information age, long-term drivers of dispersal ascend those of concentration. Online retailing and remote learning/working are just the latest spatial liberalisations that have accelerated the morphing of spreading suburbs, multiple centres and nearby urban conglomerations.
In Auckland, we need our designs to direct the outcomes we want.
• Garth Falconer is the director of Reset Urban Design, author of Living in Paradox (2015) and Harry Turbott: New Zealand's first landscape architect (2020).