Words Den Aitken

Landscape Architect, Specialist Urban Design
Built Environment Unit, Auckland Council


Images Louise Hyatt, Grant Apiata & Adrian Sampson


The Auckland urban landscape has seen a considerable shift in the last ten years. From a paradigm that saw exchange defined as a giving up of one thing for another e.g. people or cars, to a definition more resembling reciprocity or interchange e.g. people + cars.  For its greater history Auckland has developed its urban realm with a focus on vehicle movement, visibly at the expense of the pedestrian experience.  A stroll through lower downtown however will quickly reveal the recent explosion of pedestrian friendly streets across the central city, championed for decades by innovative thinkers such as Danish Architect and Urban Designer, Jan Gehl. 

The waterfront too has undergone remarkable transformation, shifting from a largely private realm to an inclusively public realm, connecting residents and visitors alike with the Waitemata Harbour, arguably the city’s greatest natural asset.  Culture and heritage values too have been celebrated on a national and international stage, including the recently completed Auckland Art Gallery - winner of 2013 World Building of the Year - a victory for champions of heritage in the city.

In the shift towards a higher quality public realm, Gehl, among many others, has been a pivotal agent for change, upending vehicle dominated spaces, brick by brick, and questioning the global love affair with the motor car.  His interpretation of a people led city has challenged city leaders, theorists, industry, and most importantly residents, to rethink the priorities of urban development and exchange one idea for another.

Exchanging ideas is arguably one of the most effective tools for initiating urban change and a transformative component for generating the social momentum needed to implement change. Cities are complex things and urban living environments, perhaps more than any other, are magnets for exchange.  The exchange of social capital and personal values builds connections, beneficial for both economic sustainability and urban wellbeing. The streets, parks, markets, banks, playgrounds and eateries are the places where people meet, talk, socialise and exchange these ideas, influencing the planning, culture and behaviour of the city.  

Take for example the city of Copenhagen, where the pedestrian, and specifically the bicycle, is king.  Like many cities in Denmark, the popularity of cycling in Copenhagen is perhaps higher than any other place in the world.  But pre 1970 Copenhagen was suffering the same fate as many cities strangled by motor vehicles.  A shift in thinking however, coupled with an escalating energy crisis, saw cycling championed back into mainstream social consciousness by groups of likeminded people who questioned the sustainable development of their city and collectively challenged designers and city leaders to exchange a vehicle led design methodology for pedestrian led.  This shift ultimately empowered the city to withstand the common global planning trend of the time, turning its back on vehicle dominated design and instead incorporating bicycle infrastructure into the city fabric, resulting in what is globally regarded today as one of the most pedestrian friendly cities in the world.  

Alternatively, and at the far right hand end of the spectrum, are cities like Johannesburg, South Africa, whose current urban form is still heavily influenced by the 1948 to 1994 Apartheid Era - a historic movement of racial segregation.  Often viewed as a largely political construct, and while certainly not supported by all, the form of the city reflected a widely accepted culture of racial discrimination associated with the era.

While these two cities are perhaps polar opposites in their methodologies for urban planning, the actions needed to achieve either outcome, positive or negative, lay in social momentum - that is the ideas and adopted values of the larger societal population.  Both Copenhagen’s shift to a pedestrian city, and ultimately Johannesburg’s shift to abolish apartheid, was a direct reflection of a shift in social momentum, informed by an exchange of ideas and accepted values.

Important to this conversation too is the role of the change makers and social innovators responsible for sparking difference - the people leading the charge, educating and challenging the at times very ingrained thinking of society.  Like the champions of equality celebrated by the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Hall in Freyberg Square or the Suffrage Memorial at Khartoum Place - a symbolic marker of New Zealand as the first nation in the world to give women the right to vote. Or the champions of community values, such as neighbourhood groups fighting for equality in living standards, or those who work to abolish family violence and child poverty. Or the faces of alternative education like Sarah Longbottom, Founder and Creative Director of the Nga Rangatahi Toa Creative Arts Initiative; a non-profit arts-mentoring and transition program that champion the fundamental educational rights of marginalised rangatahi excluded from mainstream education. Sarah’s lack of acceptance in the traditional methodologies applied to alternative education, coupled with more than a decades experience in education, has been fundamental to the development of pedagogical leadership in alternative education. Under Sarah’s leadership, 100 per cent of the youth who become involved in Nga Rangatahi Toa programs transition into further study and make significant life changes.  While social values are not as readily visible across the landscape as renewed streets or architecture, they have a direct relationship to the choices people make and the values they adopt with corresponding implications to the function and form of the city.

Take for example commercial enterprises whose business model embraces an ethical stance such as Coco’s Cantina on K’Road.  Owned and operated by sisters Renee and Damaris Coulter, they combine their love of good food with their love of good people and use the success of the eatery as a platform for promoting resilient communities - regularly cooking for groups of prostitutes who work K’Rd, making their premises available for NGO sessions, hosting community garage sales and taking pride in “being a nice place for nice people”.  This type of model is contributing to a change in the perceptions and prejudices long associated with K’rd and generating a community of business owners and patrons who are making conscious decisions about how they choose to live in the city.

Like many cities across the globe, Auckland’s urban landscape will need to continue to address the needs of a changing social climate. As the world continues its migration towards urban living the need to adapt to urban issues such as land use, sustainable economic growth, equality and social wellness, will continue to drive an exchange in the thoughts and actions of everyday people – change makers who will collectively influence the behaviour and momentum of the city from within.

For more information on the Nga Rangatahi Toa Creative Arts Initiative see
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