As local bodies embrace a people-centred approach towards the design of urban areas, community inclusion is becoming a crucial part of the process. Patricia Moore reports on how councils are rethinking urban spaces.
The motor vehicle may still rule but when it comes to placemaking, the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and residents, are increasingly being taken into account.
It’s all part of a growing global focus on placemaking; improving the quality of urban life by coming up with smart solutions driven by what communities want and need.
The reaction to urban disruption by earthquakes has also given placemaking a boost, with a big uptake in temporary and tactical techniques, particularly in Christchurch and Wellington, says Lisa Rimmer, principal landscape architect at Isthmus.
“As a placemaking tool, tactical urbanism is cheap, playful and experimental and councils see it as being achievable.”
However, she says, it’s important such interventions are programme-based to evolve over time or have a long-term outcome.
While, traditionally, communities have been consulted on a developed design, today, says Lisa, it’s about starting at the grass-roots, talking about what the community wants and developing the design from there.
And, she says, councils are getting better at leveraging infrastructure capital spend. A shift in the definition of ‘transport’, from being about motor vehicles to being multimodal, is already seeing placemaking being built into city transport projects in Auckland and Wellington, she says.
“Focusing on cycling, walking and public transport requires infrastructure projects to address placemaking at a finer grain, for a slower pace and for everyday use by the local community.
“At Kopupaka Reserve in Auckland’s Westgate Town Centre the open space outcome could have been perfunctory but by working with council we were able to make a great public space and put design in the middle of the process.
“This represents a different form of collaboration, between council’s stormwater and parks departments, the developer and council that shared the cost. These kinds of partnerships are becoming more common and relationships between councils and developers are strengthening.”
She also cites Wellington’s Cobham Drive walking and cycling project, which is currently under construction. The project promotes the concept of a ‘land bridge’ in a seaway to the CBD, as part of the Great Harbour Way.
“It builds on the site’s histories of landings and land-making, with seaworthy materials and pause points marking the remaining original shoreline, providing amenity for cyclists and pedestrians while also encouraging conversation and diverse activity continuing to make place.”
In Tauranga, the city council, together with the local community, has embarked on a project to improve the recreation outcomes of coastal Kulim Park. Urban Solutions director Lorenzo Canal says the vision is for a coastal park that’s valued and prized by the community, is safe, accessible and sustainable, and allows the community to experience the coastline and harbour.
Those involved include neighbours and the local community, casual users, Ngai Tamarawaho, Heritage NZ, sports bodies and disability advocacy representatives.
“Stakeholders represent a wide range of users and audiences whose concerns and aspirations are being encouraged and reflected in the design and decision-making process,” says Lorenzo.
By adopting a collaborative approach from day one, a community is directly involved in shaping the way a project is created and delivered, he notes.
“By designing with, rather than for, the community, a design is generated as much by the community and collaborators, as it is by the designers.
“At the first co-design workshop held in the park a diverse range of visions, suggestions and ideas from the public were expressed.”
While the two most desired activities were picnicking and walking, the park is seen by the community as a neighbourhood reserve, beachfront promenade, playground, events venue, camping site – and somewhere to simply hang out.
With councils looking to the future rather than what’s gone before, and with public safety a more pressing issue, Craig van Asch, Exeloo group sales and marketing manager, says conversations around public spaces have changed in the past five years.
“Smart Poles, Wi-Fi zones and mixed-use spaces are opening up huge opportunities to improve public spaces. There’s also increasing awareness of a more ethnically diversified urban population as well as the special needs of groups such as the disabled and transgender populations.”
This has seen public toilets changing to offer a lot more than their core purpose, says Craig. “We’re able to provide structures that can host local area networking technology as well as other sensor systems such as weather stations and external-facing security cameras – all packaged in an aesthetically pleasing design that complements the objectives of placemakers.”
Councils are embracing smart technology, he says. “An example is a project we completed for McKenzie District Council, to provide a payWave access toilet unit in Tekapo, where locals were plagued by requests to use private facilities.”
The payWave solution now produces funds that go towards the maintenance and upkeep of the toilet. Craig says that the smart technology now minimises costs to a relatively small community and is paying dividends.
Meanwhile, over in the Californian city of Morgan Hill, public spaces are going one step further, says Craig. There, some of the latest public restrooms to be installed link with remote monitoring systems to provide council with unit statistics. The system includes additional remote-control functions tethered to the internet using wireless modems connected to a LAN hub in the park.
“This gives visitors free Wi-Fi access and offers a truly inclusive public toilet system that enhances the liveability of the new play space.”
Placemaking has a vital role to play in the development of liveable cities but, as our urban areas continue to expand, creating those places becomes more challenging for local government.
While a growing number of councils are adopting smart solutions, perhaps more need to be thinking like Danish architect and pioneer urban re-thinker Jan Gehl, who says, “First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.