The car created our sprawling cities, but it’s not too late to claim them back
Picture this: it’s Saturday morning and you’ve got a busy day ahead.
You need to start the day right so you hop in your car and drive to the nearest café to grab some brekkie.
Satisfied, you’re back in the car and driving to the shopping centre to get some new shoes for work.
Another store there sells phones and yours is on its last legs, so you decide to take a look. The shopping area is spread out though, so you move your car to a closer spot.
Then it’s a short drive to the hardware store to see if they have those picture hooks you need before you motor to your friend’s house to catch up over coffee.
Finally, you stop in at the supermarket on your drive home.
You tell yourself it’s nice to have some downtime after commuting back and forth to work all week. Then you realise you spent most of the day in your car.
No, this isn’t a lecture about fossil fuels, though it’s all part of the debate.
This is, in fact, an argument for why we need to reclaim the compact city – a city where streets are places, not just transit avenues.
In many ways, urban form has always followed transport, even before the arrival of the personal motor vehicle – you could argue the River Thames was once London’s main ‘street’.
Throughout history, almost all streets have had a movement and a place function. But, over the years, in many cases the balance has tipped away from the latter.
We now spend our days driving to and past shopping centres, drive-throughs, car yards and supermarkets. All these things have their place in our society, sure, but is it what we want for our urban centres?
When you think of cities you love to visit, you’ll have a hard time finding one where streets haven’t had place and people prioritised over cars. Your errand-filled Saturday becomes walkable – the things you need are usually close by.
While you’re running those errands, you’re also having a more interesting experience. You’ll find art installations and performers; hospitality and retail develops unique character and style, informed by the people from all walks of life who come together to share a vibrant space.
It’s a fair argument that part of the reason these places succeed is because they developed before we all had cars. New York and London, for example, are served by subway systems that make it easier to get from place to place without sitting in traffic.
New Zealand cities grew alongside the car, influencing how they developed, but it’s not too late for us to reclaim them for people.
While the planning required is complex and nuanced, the core principles for achieving this are really quite simple: you give people the opportunity to live close together, and you make it easy for them to get around. With those things in place, economic, social and cultural benefits will quickly follow.
Kāinga Ora is planning for the future of our cities and communities all across New Zealand, and we’re looking at the full picture when we do – it’s not just about more homes, but the added amenities that make great places to live. Our large-scale developments support job opportunities, business, community activity and accessible transport options.
It’s one of the reasons we build partnerships at all levels – with councils and Waka Kotahi when it comes to transport, for example. By working together, we’re already reclaiming our cities as people-centred places.
Pedalling to prove a point, I recently joined David Hampton, Urban Development Lead at Waka Kotahi, to lead a cycle tour as part of Urbanism NZ.
Arriving in Waterview, we were welcomed by streets lined with recently built Kāinga Ora homes that aren’t just more modern, warmer and healthier. Many of them are also bigger than those they replaced and there are more homes occupying the same space– meaning a greater number of people can enjoy living close to jobs, transport and other amenities.
Just across the road, Auckland Council has filled Waterview Reserve with family activities, experiences and a place for that growing community to connect. That reserve is a zero-carbon link to the city centre – among other destinations – with shared paths delivered by Auckland Transport as part of the Waka Kotahi-led Waterview Connection Project.
It’s the same project that resulted in – you guessed it – the construction of the Waterview tunnel. Along with the shared paths and cycleways, local roads have fewer cars and businesses have more customers.
Each of these upgrades is one piece of a puzzle, so it’s no coincidence they fit together to create one fantastic picture for Waterview.
Of course, while the agencies mentioned may hold a piece of that puzzle, so too do residents, community groups, businesses and so many others – it takes a community to build a community.
As we address New Zealand’s housing shortage, we have an opportunity to make sustainable urbanism the norm, creating more lively, economically-successful places with less traffic and lower emissions.
By building density, we can reduce the sprawl of our cities – preserving instead of paving more of our beautiful whenua.
Author: Sue Evans, Director - Urban Design Kāinga Ora