Wellington’s Urban Design

At the Architecture Centre we feel it is time to ask some questions. The rumblings from our city have been going on for some time – the big question is : what IS going on at the Wellington City Council with regards to the Urban Design and Planning of the capital city?

Arch Centre has a long history in this respect. In fact, Arch Centre has been commenting on Wellington’s Urban Design even before Wellington had a Town Planning department. We still have active members who remember what used to happen, or not happen, and the Town Planning and Urban Design of Wellington was one of the prime reasons that Arch Centre even came into existence on. Sixty to seventy years ago, Wellington had a slum problem. Te Aro flat in particular was a suburb of drink, drugs, destitution, and prostitution, in a mix of bad buildings. Nowadays, of course, nothing much has changed…. except new buildings for old. But our concern for Urban Design continues. We campaigned on it back then, we have even run Council candidates in the past, so we feel that we have an absolute right to ask as highly concerned Wellingtonians, about just what is happening to the Urban Design Team at Wellington City Council.

We’ve been watching and waiting in the sidelines for some explanations of what the ‘Team’ is doing. Wellington used to have a very strong Urban Design Team, up until about 10 years ago. Rumour has it, our Urban unit was even the envy of Auckland. We had strong urban reviewing capabilities, with architects and urban designers working in the team and all extremely knowledgeable about the history of Wellington. But things have been changing a lot since then, and there has been a gradual and steady loss of institutional and intellectual knowledge. There are still some fantastic dedicated souls there. But many others have left, or been forced to leave.

Although we don’t have figures to hand, there have been a number of restructurings at WCC’s Urban Group over the last few years, reaching way back before the current lot of managers. Is it five restructurings in five years, or eight restructurings in eight years? Maybe even eight in five? The Urban team was within the Planning team, then outside it, then joined with Heritage, and then renamed, repositioned, and placed with Policy. It was called the Urban Strategy Group, once at least, and its leadership has varied – Ernst Zollner in particular came to prominence as an underling, went away to Auckland as a middling, came back as an overling, and then headed to the MoE as an ubermensch, all within the space of a couple of years, sweeping or being swept by a broom of changes each time. Rumours arose that Urban Design were to be put with Transport, which you would have thought was such a silly thing to do that it was ever even considered. But the WCC website indicates that the Department they currently sit in is called Urban Development and Transport. We have concerns about that.

The WCC website (top document in the WCC search), has this to say a short while ago:

“The role of an urban design unit will be the subject of debate, as there are several forms it could take.
1 Production of the strategy and disbandment.
2 As part of a large group within Council. This is a strictly operational role with no advisory capacity.
3 Advisory and policy development – advising Council divisions on urban design matters through the Project Management Process, and encouraging implementation of the strategy. No design capacity.
4 Advisory and policy development with some design capacity. Acting in an advisory capacity as above but also leading by example and prototype in some situations. Leading on implementation of some initiatives.”;

Despite that rating as the number one pick on the search button, it wasn’t really sure if that was from 1993, 2003, or 2010. Perhaps its better to ignore it, and not to draw too much into it, as an indication of what the Urban Group think they are doing. It has disappeared again now.

Auckland has a website which sounds quite good:

“…a council planning service provides you an independent urban design panel peer review. A first of its kind in New Zealand, the panel plays a key role in facilitating and promoting quality urban design projects, and high quality urban environments. The panel assesses projects and provides pre-application and application advice on development in the city. Pre-application advice is the best way of benefiting from working with the panel!  Applicants can now:
* obtain independent expert advice from professionals in the areas of urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, development and property
* gain from an enhanced company image and public support – a positive panel review will be an invaluable promotional tool.”

So: Urban Design Panels – Auckland can do it, and yet Wellington can’t? That’s worrying. Even Manukau ‘City’, that pinnacle of Urban Design quality, has got an Urban Design Policy and even an Urban Design Panel ;

There’s not much to crow about with regards to the design of Auckland or Manukau design of buildings. Their city architectures are… less than first grade. But at least they do have a functioning department. So, if anyone out there in the Urban Design world who actually does know what is going on, and wants to tell us, or to offer us another snippet of a possible road ahead…  please feel free to comment. We care about the Urban Design of the City. We hope you do too.


2 responses to “Wellington’s Urban Design”

  1. You are right about the design of buildings in Auckland being not much to shout out about – they’re not much chop at all. If this is the result of what you get from an Urban Design panel, then Wellington might be better off without it.

  2. Not sure I would quite agree with that. Yes, most of Auckland’s building stock is pretty sad and ugly. But then, so is Wellingtons as well. Most of Auck and Well buildings date well before the current Urban review panels, or lack of them.
    Therefore, whether a city has urban design panels or not, has little to do with how the buildings in a city actually look. It may have some small effects along the way. But the building is clearly under the control of something far more powerful than Urban Review panels: Money.

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