Urban Transport: The way back home

Social mobility has historically been something New Zealand delivered. Something you may be surprised to learn if you live in modern day Auckland. With pressure mounting on the inextricable link between housing, transport and growth – it seemed timely to discuss the benefits that integrated transport may deliver for the future of Auckland.

The hypothesis was “The future”, should be designed to deliver a social mobility, a positive future urban outcome.

The Way Back Home was the title of a recent talk hosted at Jasmax by myself and Chris Jack as the third instalment in the Urbanism Series. We’re both architects who have worked on major infrastructure developments, and the purpose of us putting on this talk was to share some of the experiences we’ve had on successful infrastructure projects over the last few years. While I’ve been overseas working on projects in Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Chris has spent the last four years working in the consortium delivering the City Rail Link in Auckland. So the combination of both of these recent experiences seemed fitting.

The objective was to talk about successful infrastructure developments that could get Auckland to a good level of density to create that vibrant city feeling that will attract economic growth to deliver the social mobility. When we talk about “infrastructure projects”, it’s not all about rail lines and stations. It’s also about integrating housing, retail and workplaces, creating ‘Transit Oriented Developments’ which can deliver benefits to the community that lift a place and improve overall liveability within a city.

Our talk was to demonstrate how real-life projects had been designed to deliver the qualities required to achieve their intended social outcome – cities that people want to live in. I chose to talk about three overseas projects. Each of them demonstrating a transferable approach that could unlock greater potential for New Zealand and its major city hubs. Tightness of sites, balancing developer risk and longer term thinking all part of the story, but mostly, our purpose, as architects joining the discussion, is to talk about what value design can bring to these projects.

For example, on the Melbourne Metro tender I was involved in, the focus was on a “human-centred approach” to design. It was the design component that shortened passenger journey time by 17% over the reference design in order to add value to the lives of the user. By taking a human-centred view we opened up the station design to get as much natural light deep into the platform as possible, in order to aid wayfinding. As one of the most liveable cities in the world, people don’t want to be spending their time underneath the city, they want to be in it. The 17% journey time reduction had direct cost savings for capital and operating costs of the stations also.

In Kuala Lumpur, a developer was facing a site that had a potential of 250,000sqm GFA, but it was all compromised by its awkward shape, a two storey six lane freeway (12 lanes in total) and a subterranean rail line. The architecture team was brought into assess the site and make as good use of the site as possible with a scheme for a Transit Oriented Development.

The client had no expectations of us reaching the GFA maximum, they just wanted us to maximise the development potential of the encumbered site. We worked with a real estate consultant who gave us preferred ratios of housing to commercial to retail. Working within these ratios, our development scheme then established feasible core locations for high rise towers, covered the freeway in a High Line-esque public garden, linking the mix of hotels, apartments, offices and retail and transport. The full development potential of the site in terms of use and mix was met through the value of design.

The final example was a masterplanning project in the Woodlands district of Singapore. Woodlands North Coast was strategically planned to be serviced by the first station in a new 22 station underground Metro line. While the political structures in Singapore are very different to NZ, the beauty is in their attitude to planning in the very long-term. The key to this project was to leverage the opportunity afforded by the transport infrastructure to deliver an integrated walkable masterplan. An approach where buildings were grouped in clusters for efficiency of access and service. The city also hasn’t had to compromise on its living or green space, in fact it is known as “the garden city”. They’re investing in intensified living, but at scale.

The apartment I lived in was 200sqm and overlooked a park, complete with shared facilities such as a pool, gym, tennis courts, security parking etc and was affordable (costing me one quarter of my salary in rent). The key to this is supply; my apartment was one unit in a 135 unit development built around 30 years ago, around the same time the first mass transit line became operational. This long-term planning is something that New Zealand could achieve.

So, what was the relevance of The Way Back Home to us here in New Zealand? There are big conversations happening around major infrastructure developments in both Wellington and Auckland right now. The winning combination for successful infrastructure developments is true collaboration, between local and central government, developer, engineer and designer. For us it’s about promoting the design piece of the puzzle. Delivering on the qualities that people want. Making sure that the right investment is put into good urban, architectural and landscape planning. It’s this detail to design that is the difference to how vibrant, rich, attractive and liveable a city will be in the long run.

The Way Back Home is about making the connection between home, work and play as easy, enjoyable and accessible as it can be.

Previously in the Urbanism Series: Housing models for the betterment of all, with Accommodation Studio Lead, James Whetter, and Challenging the NZ planning system with our Head of Urban Design, Alistair Ray.

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