Auckland Council planners have chosen a favourable time to circulate the latest version of their vision for the city. The draft Auckland Plan arrives as citizens are admiring the newly opened Wynyard Quarter waterfront. Like the Viaduct Harbour development nearby, it is an example of fine civic design, providing wide, inviting promenades, buildings of human scale and pleasant spaces to be.
If planners had their way, all of the inner city would be as attractive, and many suburban centres too. The draft Auckland Plan will be open for discussion until it is adopted by the council, probably next year, but in essence it is the same plan the former Auckland Regional Council followed. It wants to contain urban sprawl and accommodate most of the city's growing population within existing limits.
Aucklanders have been hearing this theme for more than 40 years, and while not many argue with it, not many have voted for it with their feet. Is there any reason to believe they might do so now?
Well, some things have changed. Auckland now has one council, with a great deal of revenue at its command. Its population is not only rising, it is changing. The proportion aged over 60 is projected to increase, and the population is becoming more Asian.
Already Asians outnumber Maori and Pacific immigrants and in 10 years Aucklanders of Asian descent could comprise 27 per cent of the population. They, and greater numbers of elderly, might meet the planners' designs for a city in which people will live in higher density residential zones and travel by fast public transport.
Besides the central city, seven suburban or "satellite" centres - Onehunga, New Lynn, Tamaki, Takapuna, Warkworth, Hobsonville and Pukekohe - have been chosen for higher density housing. Takapuna's inclusion is interesting. It has been in visible decline as the North Shore's gravity moved toward Albany. It may fare better under the new council than it did under North Shore's care.
But it is the central city that will be the Auckland Council's prime focus, and properly so. Every city needs a centre it can enjoy and present with pride. Queen St and its surrounds do not meet that standard despite the recent improvements. The Auckland Council has a draft central city plan ready for release, which would further restrict traffic in Queen St and turn all of the street into a "shared space" where everything would move at pedestrian pace.
The planners envisage light rail in the street, but they also see a commuter rail line under Albert St. They may have to choose between expensive dreams. But shared use, retaining access for motor vehicles, should circumvent the objections of Queen St retailers to every previous proposal for a pedestrian mall. Shared use means the street can have passing traffic at times not many people are about. It should meet all needs.
Several streets off Queen St have recently been converted to shared use, giving citizens another valuable sample of ideas in larger schemes. The sidestreets and the waterfront (subject of a third plan soon to be issued) are encouraging to see. They are helping the city centre look its best for the visitors and revellers during the Rugby World Cup.
Plans such as those now emerging are grand designs that quite rightly take little account of costs. It does no harm to know what is possible before we face the limits of affordability. Even a $5.5 billion wishlist might be possible over a 30-year payment schedule if Aucklanders are prepared to pay for it. If the next few weeks are as successful as we hope, and the Queen City basks in the glow, her planners' visions might convince even the sceptical that they can turn the city we know into the place they think it can be.