COMMENT:

The Waterview tunnels, properly called the Waterview Connection, are an "urban infrastructure project with transport-related goals". Is that PR nonsense or is it a real thing?

The citizens of Waterview weren't in any doubt when it was first put to them.

"I got booed off the stage," says Shannon Joe, a principal at Warren and Mahoney, the architectural firm responsible for the project.

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"In Waterview they made it very clear to us they didn't want the project to define them. We did a lot of talking. A lot of talking. Because, you know, we wanted it to represent the things we aspire to be in our communities."

What, a motorway?

"Yeah, I know. The biggest challenge is that it was a motorway. But those people were incredibly disrupted and we wanted to do something that would give back."

So they worked with the community and with NZ Transport Agency in collaboration with the Well Connected Alliance and Boffa Miskell to build playing fields, wetlands, skateparks, children's playgrounds and a network of boardwalks and trails for cycling and walking.

For the motorway itself they took a radically new approach to the ventilation stacks and they built a beautiful new pedestrian overbridge.

That bridge, Te Whitinga, follows a curved line linking Mt Roskill/Puketāpapa with Mt Albert/Ōwairaka. You can look at it and think volcano, which is intentional, but its grace is apparent whether you understand the reference or not.

The ventilation stack at the Mt Roskill end, slotted between the two tunnels, is slim, dark, angled, a pou that recalls a giant obsidian blade thrust into the ground. That's intentional too, a reference to the violence of the volcanic landscape and to the strength of te ao Maori.

The stack near the Pt Chevalier end, just by the new bridge over the Oakley Stream to Unitec, rises on a similarly raked angle and is wrapped in metal stakes like the stockade of a pā.

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There was talk of siting play areas far from the roadway and tunnel entrances, but Joe says they resisted that.

They didn't want the "out of bounds" feel common to many motorway features: this thing was going to be right there in the community and they were keen to normalise its presence.

So you skate, ride your bike, walk the wetlands right by those tunnel entrances.

"The public realm goes right to the edge."

Shannon Joe likes to talk in elevated language, about the "heart and soul and mind of Auckland". It'll take a little more than his enthusiasm to convince me a motorway fits that bill, but I'm not going to doubt his enthusiasm and I'm completely with him on the purpose of good design.

He's proud of how popular and well used the project is. That public realm is a busy space: the design serves its community.

He's proud of how it looks, too, and so he should be. They've made some beautiful things on and around that motorway.

In the Designers Institute's Best Design Awards this year, the Waterview Connection won the top award for spatial design: a purple pin.

In November it's in the running to go even further, as a finalist in the World Architectural Festival awards.

Good design is about function plus aesthetics, making the city a better place to be. Joe's colleague, project architect Tom Locke, says they even managed to stop NZTA hanging signs off the bridge and the tunnel portals. Aesthetics really are important.

So why doesn't good design fare better in other parts of our built environment? In, say, Mission Bay? That glorious public realm of beach and foreshore park, where developers want to replace the village shops with a memorial to the most ghastly decade in the entire history of architecture – the 1980s?

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for development in Mission Bay. Who doesn't want more quality and more variety among those shops and restaurants? I love that the grassed areas are such a favoured spot for large picnicking families.

But the village itself is desperate for some tlc – and a lineup of good mixed-use multi-storey buildings, with retail below and offices and apartment living above, could make it marvellous.

Density done well? Mission Bay is ripe for it.

The proposed Mission Bay development area. Photo / Supplied
The proposed Mission Bay development area. Photo / Supplied

But did the developers not even glance over the road at the colonial Stonehouse and its superb new wooden-slatted pavilion, designed by Herbst Architects, and soak up an inspiration or two? Does the watchword of a comfortable seaside suburb really need to be garish ostentation?

I'm not alone in thinking this: the council's Urban Design Panel said it could not approve the project unless there were significant improvements. But what does that mean?

This is a test case. The developers want to go higher than is permitted in the Unitary Plan, so there'll be public submissions and a hearing with independent commissioners.

But while they look at the regulations and hear opinions about sea views, traffic congestion, parking and whether anything at all should ever change, the real test is whether the design panel will be listened to.

Urban design panels were first established in Auckland in 2003, in response to the deliberate uglification of the city then being perpetrated on Nelson St, Beach Rd and elsewhere.

The system was enlarged in 2012 and several panels now operate, drawing on a large pool of architects, urban designers, planners, academics and others.

Backed by a design manual created by the council's Design Office, they offer independent guidance to developers. They are supposed to help ensure we get a better built environment.

But the panels have no statutory power and no real authority. If Auckland Council was really committed to good design, things would be different right now with the Mission Bay proposal.

Instead of submitters being forced to waste their time and money on a hearing, the developers would have been sent back to the drawing board. Only when the urban design panel was satisfied would they be allowed near the hearings process.

The debate about design breaks out everywhere. In West Lynn, Auckland Transport (AT) has been wrongly accused of wanting to spend around $30 million to fix up the cycle lanes.

In fact, the money will be spent on an integrated plan for the local village that includes stormwater control, traffic safety, road surfacing, tree planting and other beautification, car parking and, yes, cycle lanes.

It's true the project will cost more than it should. That's because AT got it wrong the first time round, particularly in not taking an integrated planning approach, and they ended up with something both dysfunctional and ugly. Urban design did not drive the project.

But it looks like they're doing the right thing now: creating a decent shopping village with a design-led solution. Helping to build a community.

The Waterview Connection shows that good design is good at that.

And if they can do it with a profoundly disruptive motorway project, we have no excuse not to expect – and empower – our designers to do it everywhere.