Local Government Magazine

The future of urban design

In the first of our new series focusing on the future, Mary Searle Bell asks what 
local authorities should expect when it comes to placemaking and urban design.

For James Rosenwax, market sector director for cities at AECOM, great places in our cities are achieved when there is “a mixture of flexibility, spontaneity, diversity, expression and engaged community”. This, he says, is the “special sauce” of any development. But it’s no easy feat for local authorities, developers and agencies to get it right.

Smart local authorities, says James, will need to build a degree of flexibility into their development, operations and maintenance policies.

According to James, councils need to provide greater flexibility in permissible uses to allow areas to evolve organically and respond to changing needs within a community.

“Currently planning requires for all future uses to be resolved as early as development application,” he says. “Alternative approaches could involve a staged adaptation approach to enable new ideas to be tested and to encourage more diverse uses for new precincts.”

However, updating policy is just one small part of preparing for the future. Councils must take a raft of factors into consideration when planning our towns and cities – things like an aging population, growing obesity and other public health issues, the effects of climate change, access to fresh water, and technological advances in transport.

A key challenge facing local government is the need for housing diversity. Factors such as affordability, aged care and social housing must be included in the mix.

With non-communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes on the rise, good urban design can help create healthy and engaged communities by providing tree-lined, walkable streets and access to services within walking distance.

Climate change too brings a number of issues that must be considered in urban design. More extreme weather and weather events will require towns and cities to be robust enough to withstand them.

Chris Scrafton of MWH Global says local authorities have an obligation to take the effects of climate change into account when planning for communities, promoting the use of green infrastructure in land use planning.

“Swales, rain gardens, urban forests and green roofs can protect areas against flooding and provide a break from the heat, while also improving quality of life by increasing green spaces in urban areas and creating community cohesion.”

Brett Gawn, sector leader – urban development and survey at Calibre Consulting and committee member of the Urban Design Forum, says, in growth areas, higher density living requires a lot of thinking about improved streetscape, pedestrian and public space amenity, successful public transport and ‘brownfield’ redevelopment.

Local authorities facing zero or negative growth “need to work out how to cope with that without losing their vitality and their urban amenity”.

He says, it is critical for good placemaking and urban design that a balance is achieved between a whole of life asset management approach to assets and good urban amenity – “the recognition that great towns and cities need to be people orientated and this may cost a little more in operations and maintenance, and, on the other hand, urban designers need to ensure that we create assets that are easy to maintain and operate”.

One solution is to find alternate means of financing, operating and maintaining open spaces.

James cites New York City’s Bryant Park as one of the most successful examples of a public park being run by a not-for-profit trust. “It’s been hugely successful in restoring an asset local government were struggling to maintain within their own budgets,” he says.

But it’s not only parks that are public spaces. The streets themselves need to be accessible and liveable. Chris says it is important to remember that streets are not just about moving vehicles.

He says the challenge is to shift the focus of streets from being simply roads, to seeing them as multi-modal, multi-use spaces.

“We know that more people use streets as part of their daily lives than would visit a park.”

Streets are the corridors that connect the spaces we use, he says. Therefore, they must be treated with the same level of regard and care in terms of design and placemaking as the more traditional ‘green’ spaces.

Auckland provides a good example of this, with recent investment creating high-quality streets and public spaces to attract people back to the CBD.

Stuart Houghton, principal and urban designer at Boffa Miskell, is convinced that placemaking has played a significant role in the re-invention of urban Auckland over the past five years or so.

“These efforts have been hugely instrumental in forging new connections between all Aucklanders and their central city and waterfront… Aucklanders are learning to love their central city; to want to be there even when they may have no particular reason to.”

According to Stuart, placemaking is an organised programme of activity to kickstart new or struggling places or to repurpose a place. But he adds that the real challenge will increasingly lie in getting more places to a point where the placemaking takes care of itself.

  • Mary Searle Bell is a freelance writer and editor.

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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