A tale of two cities

Cities. Love them or hate them, they may just rep­re­sent the best chance for the sus­tain­abil­ity of the planet. Could Auck­land or Christchurch be among the world’s most eco-friendly?

Element - - Contents - By Adam Gif­ford

Cities are liv­ing or­gan­isms. There is con­stant move­ment. They breathe, or choke. They take in energy, wa­ter, food, build­ing ma­te­ri­als, and ex­crete waste.

They have sys­tems for re­pro­duc­tion, in the form of ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, con­struc­tion, plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment. But are they healthy or nat­u­ral? More than half the world’s pop­u­la­tion now live in cities, and that’s pro­jected to rise to two thirds by 2050.

So can ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments be eco-friendly and, if so, how do we make them that way?

It’s a ques­tion ur­ban­ists, plan­ners and ar­chi­tects are wrestling with.

Ludo Camp­bell Reid, the gen­eral man­ager of Auck­land Coun­cil’s de­sign of­fice, says while Auck­land doesn’t say it wants to be an eco city, it wants to be one of the world’s most liv­able cities.

“One of the tenets of be­ing one of the great­est cities on earth will need to be our eco-cre­den­tials, so we have a whole range of ini­tia­tives from re­build­ing our trans­port net­work through to zero-waste poli­cies, re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions, in­vest­ing in an elec­tric fleet, en­cour­ag­ing walk­ing, re­build­ing the wa­ter­front.

“Ev­ery­thing we do is about sus­tain­abil­ity in its wider sense…” he says. Camp­bell-Reid says the coun­cil has de­vel­oped strong cri­te­ria around the per­for­mance of new build­ings, and it is look­ing at con­vert­ing road space into green space so the cen­tral city streets be­come about peo­ple rather than rush-hour traf­fic.

“Cities are com­pet­ing to be the green­est city on earth. That goes back to a range of things in­clud­ing the cre­ative in­dus­tries. Cre­ative, in­no­va­tive, en­tre­pre­neur­ial peo­ple are drawn to dif­fer­ent cities but they can work and live any­where in the world. One of their ma­jor cre­den­tials is the green cre­den­tial of that par­tic­u­lar busi­ness, what it stands for and what its en­vi­ron­men­tal rat­ing is.”

Camp­bell-Reid says New Zealand has the po­ten­tial to be­come a world leader in these is­sues.

“The re­build of Christchurch is an op­por­tu­nity for it to re­ally stamp its mark on its green cre­den­tials and eco city cre­den­tials.”

That’s the per­spec­tive from Auck­land, but on the ground in the shaken city Lin­coln Univer­sity ur­ban de­sign lec­turer An­dreas We­sener fears it’s an op­por­tu­nity go­ing beg­ging.

While there may be as­pi­ra­tions to in­clude sus­tain­abil­ity and eco­log­i­cal fea­tures in the re­design of the city, there is lit­tle to see on the ground.

“There are a few flag­ship projects, a few pri­vate de­vel­op­ments, but none of these sug­gest Christchurch will go a dif­fer­ent way than be­fore the earth­quake,” he says.

Some of that may be caused by an in­sur­ance regime that in­sists it is pay­ing to re­store what was there be­fore, not use the op­por­tu­nity to make some­thing bet­ter.

“There is also ten­sion be­tween two plan­ning regimes. CERA (the Christchurch Earth­quake Re­cov­ery Au­thor­ity, ap­pointed by gov­ern­ment) made most de­ci­sions be­hind closed doors and there was lit­tle public par­tic­i­pa­tion. Christchurch City Coun­cil, the gov­ern­ment peo­ple have voted for, had a strong par­tic­i­pa­tory ap­proach – for ex­am­ple the ‘Share An Idea’ process – but has been dis­em­pow­ered and left with only a few things that it can do – it can’t do much in the city cen­tre,” We­sener says.

He says that tem­po­rary spa­ces that emerged on va­cant sites in­clud­ing ur­ban green­ing, artis­tic and ex­per­i­men­tal projects were an in­ter­est­ing pointer. “These are bot­tom-up projects as op­posed to the CERA ap­proach.”

We­sener be­lieves ma­jor is­sues like wa­ter man­age­ment still need to be ad­dressed. “We have a pro­ject with stu­dents look­ing at places af­fected by wa­ter on both sides. The pro­jected rise in sea lev­els of 1.2m to 3m over the next few decades is enor­mous for a city like Christchurch. A large part of the eastern side will regularly be un­der wa­ter. They are wicked prob­lems with no easy so­lu­tions,” he says.

What al­lows a city and its res­i­dents to breathe is a bal­ance be­tween residential den­sity and green spa­ces.

As some­one who grew up in apart­ments in Ger­many, We­sener sees higher den­sity as an op­por­tu­nity.

“If you have higher den­sity, you need to come up with higher qual­ity build­ings,” he says.

New Zealand has a ten­dency to­wards sub­ur­ban sprawl, with a lot of land that would be valu­able for other pur­poses like grow­ing food or recre­ation be­ing cov­ered with build­ings.

Al­lied with that is ur­ban trans­port, which is cur­rently dom­i­nated by the car. That can change, as can be seen in cities like Am­s­ter­dam and Ber­lin where fewer than 40 per cent of peo­ple now rely on their cars.

Christchurch used to be a bi­cy­cle cap­i­tal com­pa­ra­ble to Copenhagen and Am­s­ter­dam and there are some in­ter­est­ing projects on the way to make cy­cling in Christchurch safer and more at­trac­tive again. How­ever, the car is still king, cy­cling is of­ten marginalised and there seems to be more public dis­cus­sion about car park­ing than al­ter­na­tive trans­porta­tion mod­els. Since Christchurch’s roads had to be re­built any­way, it should have been easy to add in cy­cle ways and pro­mote more ac­tive modes of trans­port.

We­sener says New Zealand has a qual­i­ta­tive prob­lem with its plan­ning sys­tem, which was de­vel­oped from a ru­ral rather than an ur­ban per­spec­tive. “The Re­source Man­age­ment Act looks at the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of things but not nec­es­sar­ily at the ur­ban qual­i­ties of a de­vel­op­ment, or the so­cial qual­i­ties.”

He sees room for more ur­ban agri­cul­ture projects as part of

the lit­eral green­ing of cities.

“The in­ter­est­ing thing in the last 20 years in the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment is they have proved re­ally ben­e­fi­cial – not just for a green per­spec­tive for food re­silience – but also a so­cial per­spec­tive be­cause these are places peo­ple met, so­cial cap­i­tal is con­structed there, there is a lot of re­search show­ing it has been ben­e­fi­cial to com­mu­ni­ties.

“Peo­ple who get in­volved with com­mu­nity gar­dens have health­ier lifestyles, less obe­sity prob­lems, they are so­cially ac­tive. “If you have high den­sity, these spa­ces are im­por­tant.” A pos­i­tive note on the hori­zon is na­tional science chal­lenge 11, to build bet­ter homes, towns and cities.

Back in Auck­land, the coun­cil’s chief sus­tain­abil­ity of­fi­cer John Mauro says the city ben­e­fits from the sheer luck of ge­og­ra­phy with its beaches and bush and nat­u­ral sur­round­ings.

But its pop­u­lar­ity is a chal­lenge, as grow­ing num­bers of in­hab­i­tants strain its sys­tems.

“I am op­ti­mistic if I look at who is com­ing to Auck­land and who is born here. There is a pow­er­ful dual wave of young peo­ple and their re­quests for a live­able city, as well as older peo­ple who are think­ing less of mov­ing to lifestyle blocks out­side the city and more about a city be­ing a place to walk and be among peo­ple like them­selves.

“If the city is go­ing to be a de­sir­able place to live, we need to not only have hous­ing that’s af­ford­able and easy trans­port con­nec­tions, we need to have green space.

“The re­search says that’s what makes peo­ple happy and that’s what gives eco­log­i­cal value in a city.”

The high­est pop­u­la­tion den­sity in the city is along the ridge of Hob­son and Nel­son Sts, but it’s not a wel­com­ing area to walk or drive.

Mauro says in­stead of treat­ing the roads as high-vol­ume, high-speed ar­te­ri­als, there is a case for slow­ing it down, maybe mak­ing the roads two-way again, widen­ing foot­paths, ac­ti­vat­ing the streetscape with cafes and shop­ping so it be­comes a live­able front yard for the peo­ple there.

“We have the tools but lack the courage and vi­sion to take bold steps. Other cities are say­ing they are will­ing to try things that are dif­fer­ent and rad­i­cal.”

Mauro re­cently moved from Seat­tle, where cy­cling is pro­moted as a trans­port strat­egy. He’s an ad­vo­cate of cy­cle lanes, which he says cre­ate more jobs than car in­fra­struc­ture.

“Peo­ple on bikes or on foot can linger by shops longer, so if you are wor­ried about re­tail, put a bike lane in front of your busi­ness.”

Change can be made. He says Copenhagen used to be worse than Auck­land for car de­pen­dence, but it has made small in­vest­ments each year to be­come friend­lier to cy­clists.

“Over the next three years we will spend $123 mil­lion on walk­ing and cy­cling in Auck­land.”

Mauro says Auck­land Coun­cil and its sub­sidiaries can lead by ex­am­ple, as is show­ing with Auck­land Trans­port’s pivot to­wards public trans­port and cy­cling.

There is also pro­cure­ment, with a big in­vest­ment in LED street lights that will not only save an es­ti­mated $36 mil­lion in power and parts over the next 20 years, but should be a large enough pur­chase to bring prices down for other firms.

“If we don’t act and look at smart green clean tech and great ideas, we will be left be­hind. There is an op­por­tu­nity for Auck­land to di­ver­sify its econ­omy and be­come a place where peo­ple want to live.”

Christchurch city’s Ha­gley Park; right: Auck­land’s mo­tor­ways.

This se­ries is pro­duced in as­so­ci­a­tion with Lin­coln Univer­sity

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