The first law of city planning ought to be: Watch what people do. Not what you think they should do, or what you think they'd like to do, or even what they say they'd like to do. Watch what they do.
This has never been the first law of planning in Auckland and it still isn't. I know this from one glance at the artists' impression published in this paper last Saturday of the council's latest plans for the downtown waterfront. There are jagged fenced platforms along the stretch from the Ferry Building to Princess Wharf. That's where city workers like to sit on sunny days and eat their lunch.
The drawing looks very nice. The platforms are artfully shaped and there are grassy plots and some trees. There are people in the picture too but they are nearly all standing for there are few seats and they are not facing the water. And there is nothing resembling the steps down to the water or the lower terrace nearer the water there where people have been sitting and enjoying the waterfront for years.
Why don't planners see these things? What sort of arrogance does it take to design something completely different? Or is it just what happens in committees when an exciting concept or a vision is captivating the room and nobody is game enough to say it doesn't accord with what people are actually doing down there.
The second law of planning should be: Work with what people instinctively do, don't work against them. These suggestions have suddenly become more urgent with the council's decision this week to close Queen St to cars and turn it into a pedestrian mall with a tramway down the middle. They were stirred into action by the writing of Simon Wilson in the Herald and they've got a real head of steam. They want trial road closures next year.
It's not a bad plan, attributed to Ludo Campbell-Reid who introduced us to streets where cars could be slowed by subtle means, cobble stones for example, so pedestrians could easily share the road. That has worked rather well, I think, in Federal St and Fort St.
Now the roads crossing Queen St are to be blocked and the whole CBD divided into traffic "cells" permitting no driving through the city. I think it could work quite well, giving enough car access for most people and getting rid of the kerbside parking that blights High St in particular. But whether the plan works for Queen St will depend on whether the planners start watching what people do.
Architects work this way, I'm fairly sure. When they take on a site they watch what people do there, where on the site people like to be, where they sit, where they look, where the sun, slope, light and views make it most natural and comfortable to be. If there are no people already using the area, I imagine the architect takes her children there at the weekend and watches where on the site they go and what they do there.
Auckland planners appear to have done this too for the Viaduct Basin and done it even better for the Wynyard Quarter waterfront. But never for Queen St. I'm old enough to remember when they closed Lower Queen St to create the now late, unlamented Queen Elizabeth Square. It was nicely designed, and redesigned from time to time when it didn't attract much use.
But one day somebody at the council - it was certainly not the planners - let food carts move into the square. First one or two, then more. They positioned themselves where they chose and pretty soon the place was alive. People were sitting on all the seats the planners had artfully designed, and on the munching interesting selections of exotic fast food.
It couldn't last. After a couple of years the council decided the square had become a "mess" and something had to be done about. First they ordered all the food carts into a straight line, eventually they banished them in yet another redesign. There was a pretty fountain there for a while, and a kinetic artwork that didn't attract much interest. None of that really worked.
I don't know what might work for Queen St. The Herald has moved out of the valley and even though the new building is just over the ridge on the slopes of Freemans Bay, I'm surprised how seldom I go back there. But they have been squeezing cars out of Queen St for a long time and there must be some uses people are making of those widened footpaths and street furniture.
If not, the planners should close the street and see what happens. Don't design too much, just wait and watch what people do.