What does a billboard advertising the Bay look like to a passenger on the tube on a grey London morning in thirty years time? How does it stand against the competition as a beacon for capital and talent? Designer and urbanist Anthony Vile argues we need to filter all decisions around our built environment in Hawke’s Bay through that image.

“Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and for the city.”
Le Corbusier, 1931, One of the modern era’s greatest architects

Eighty years on, modern life is even more demanding, and the need for a ‘new kind of plan’ more urgent. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population, or over 6.4 billion people, will live in cities – the ‘urban revolution’.

Coincident with threats to energy supply and the environment, the urban revolution is a catalyst for a new way of thinking about cities and how we occupy and use them. We are living in a time of massive change, yet it is still possible to understand and derive a path based on knowledge, intuition, tools at hand and perhaps a little dreaming. That is what designers do every day.

What does this urban future mean for Hawke’s Bay?

To some extent I am a refugee from the GFC and the Auckland housing crisis, in the Bay for the last two years, my connections here via genetic memory. With kids in tow, mum and dad seek refuge from the challenging elements of big city living, bursting with experience and enthusiasm for the promised-land and the opportunities it might afford – open space, big sky, no traffic, affordable housing, good schools, fresh produce, friendly people, less stress.

DIY Urbanism : 2030 Urban Plan, Almere Oosterworld / ©MVRDV

The new California, ripe for and welcoming of new talent and ideas to help deliver a better future to a culturally rich, diverse region growing to be confidant of its place in national and global affairs. Go the Bay!

For those not tied to the land through birth, the provincial experience is perceived as being a lifestyle choice. Especially so when viewed through the marketing material foisted by travel and real estate agents. The Bay is coincident with a ‘unique lifestyle’. The vineyard experience and the opportunity for healthy active living – think beautiful people, dude on a push bike, surf board under arm, a gentle roll down the hill to a right hand point break, back home to crayfish, chardonnay, children happily playing in the vines with a puppy. Fantastic.

Beyond the image

I feel I can now see beyond that marketing image, attractive as it is, to the reality of the Bay and what in essence are some trends troubling and antithetical to the promise. For now I may still have the luxury of fresh eyes capable of seeing the opportunities sitting at the doorstep, waiting only for the right catalyst.

Without a common vision it is unclear how the region can develop and compete for national and global capital and talent, while offering a sustainable lifestyle and pathway for our people now and in the future. Fragmentation and disconnection evident in the political ecology is glaringly obvious as manifested in the built environment. We have a very clear correlation of spatial location with income and social issues, better forgotten than confronted … out of sight, out of mind. Scattered around the Bay various settlements reach out to each other with sinuous asphalt arms, reliance on the automobile creating a ‘could be anywhere’ scenario.

Thankfully, the key attributes of sustainable city-making are coincident with the key elements of high-value urban environments. Compact, adaptable, walkable, connected, legible, diverse, easy to get around, conducive to the exchange of ideas, dollars and stories. Think Barcelona not Botany Downs. Cities around the world are rethinking the post-war auto-centric model and transforming, not necessarily because they want to, but because in order to remain competitive over the long term, they must.

Therein lies a great opportunity for the Bay. In reconsidering how and where we build, we also need to reassess the value architecture and urban design plays in creating value in our built environment and lifestyles. With better design, under-performance in all four bottom lines could simultaneously be addressed.

Needed: design intelligence

Rob Adams, Dirctor of City Design, City of Melbourne said in The Age in 2009:

“We have reached an interesting time when the drivers of sustainable cities are the same as the drivers of livable cities …When these characteristics come together as they do in Barcelona, they provide an alchemy of sustainability, social benefit and economic vitality. These cities reduce their need for car travel, reduce energy consumption and emissions, use local materials, support local businesses and create identifiable communities.”

Design intelligence needs to be applied as a mechanism to create quality, innovation and value. This is especially true of those areas and communities most at social risk. Opportunities to future proof the housing stock based on best practice in communities such as Maraenui are being missed. Instead, planning processes enable the development of places with no clear identity … based on the preconceptions of politicians, bureaucrats and contracted drafts people with perhaps the best intentions, but without the right training and little or no connection to place.

The Napier Art Deco resource of architecture and design obviously creates value for the city as a clearly identifiable brand. That opportunity was created eighty years ago. Decisions made today have the potential to create value long into the future, and need to be taken against a vision of what that future could be. What is the billboard lifestyle we want to sell to our great-grand children?

In order to leverage its unique potential, it is imperative that design is enabled at all levels of city-building and development in the Bay. Three councils in the region serving a population of 150,000 and not one architect or urban design specialist on council staff to advise what spatial and design opportunities exist or to add value to property development initiatives, whether public or private. What opportunities are we missing by this void in knowledge? The old adage “we don’t know what we don’t know” springs to mind.

Design panels have been used with some success in Ahuriri; they are talked about in Hastings, but seldom actioned. They are standard fare in maturing cities where it has been realised that, without the input of design professionals, there is a risk that the built future of the region may in fact prove to be a tax rather than a value-adding proposition. Heritage is as much about what we create today as what we protect for tomorrow. Based on current trends, what would a “2012 Design Appreciation Weekend” inspire in eighty years?

What are the processes to enable a collective vision for the future Bay? The issues are understood to some degree. ‘Sustainability’ and ‘place-based planning’ are bandied about as notions of merit between the various councils and decision-makers. HDC with its catch phrase “great living for a sustainable future” ticks the box, but is actually unclear in meaning.

There is no regional clarity of vision other than perhaps agreement that economic growth is desirable, water is important, consultation is legally required, and China is where the money is. A vision and pathways to achieving it need to be extricated from a three-year political cycle masquerading as a long-term plan.

Globally there exists a vast amount of research and best practice examples of sustainable city-making, sustainable transportation models, sustainable housing, sustainable lifestyles. The speed of global communication enables research and ideas to grow.

The city is open source. Geographic isolation no longer equals cultural isolation. Geography is no longer an excuse for mediocrity. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel … just understand, based on local and global knowledge, what wheel works best here.

One of the great advantages of the regions, compared to a behemoth like Auckland, is a relative nimbleness and resilience based on scale. A nimbleness that could perhaps overcome inertia and prove adaptable, analogous to a coastal tender compared to a super-tanker. More of a ‘just do it’ approach rather than the convoluted processes and energy demands involved with changing the course of a super-tanker.

The opportunities visible through my specific design-world spectacles, and global point of reference, might seem pretty obvious and might sound like a one-liner lifted from a marketing pamphlet, but I think the Bay could create its point of difference through its attitude to architecture, urban design and place-making as a celebration of our unique climate, geography and culture. Our wine is famously a unique product of our climate and geography; why not our buildings, John Scott and a few other local luminaries aside?

WORK Architecture Company. MOMA exhibition, New York 2011

Our urban design opportunities

Napier, with its deco cloak a symbol of rejuvenation and newness, is now in danger of becoming purely nostalgic, less willing to invoke the wand of newness. What if Napier continued to embrace ‘newness’ as it did post-earthquake?
How much more of a tourist attraction could it become?

In a response to these times what if deco city was also eco city? There is an opportunity now, as the earthquake-prone building issues are addressed, to re-embrace the idea of new and rejuvenation. It is possible for historic ways of thinking to sit beside new ideas comfortably. Carbon fibre and brick.

Hastings, with its urban grid and railway marks time in denial, while its potential bubbles just below the surface. What if the artificial constraints placed on its natural ecology were lifted and water once again flowed … as did the crowds on Heretaunga Street? Hastings, once known as Christchurch of the North, appears destined by political process and nostalgia to be an under-performing retail main street and parking area?

What if it had a river again? It wouldn’t be the first city in the world to realise what once was considered a liability was perhaps actually the city’s greatest asset. What if its natural ecology over time was the basis for its renaissance as a leader in ecological urbanism?

What if the opportunity of connecting the two main urban centres via the key strategic asset known as the railway corridor was taken? What if freight traffic was pushed out of Hastings central and off the Napier Parade as was first mooted in 1965?

What if the advantageous exposure to solar energy was used to its maximum effect reducing the tax on households as well as the tenuous link to the national grid?

What if the burgeoning population of baby boomers embraced inner-city living, and valuable land taken up by rest-homes and suburban expansion was given back to food production or nature?

What if parking became simply park?

What if real constraints on suburban development enabled people to re-inhabit the city centres drained of retail space whose tenants require only a URL to trade these days?

In lieu of low natural population growth and a rapidly ageing population, what if we more actively sought immigrants?

What if the dynamic nature of the seismic, alluvial and coastal landscape was celebrated, rather than feared? What if the biodiversity and ecological uniqueness of the region was regenerated in balance with the needs and growing demand of crop production?

What if Mãori heritage was celebrated “as a living spirituality, a living mana moving through generations” manifested and “brought to life through relationships between people and place” (The Mãori Heritage Council Statement on Mãori Heritage).

There is no denying the challenges faced by the Bay in a changing world. Challenges with a regional focus, but also global. One hopes the measures put in place to mitigate future issues are well-considered, as previously acceptable lifestyle choices become no longer so.

As guardians of the future, present decision-makers should offer urban futures based on more than car park numbers. They need to enable sustainable lifestyles and resilience through clarity of vision, leadership and design. Giving value to design does not need to be limited to big cities and big budgets.

Design was clearly on the public radar in the Bay eighty years ago. Like then, we need again to start with a dream and let those with the passion and the knowledge negotiate that future, be it a house or a city.

Go the Bay… “ the beauty of which can only be seen through the eyes of a Hawk”. Here is hoping design and spatial intelligence just might again unlock some of that beauty and add value to our region.

Anthony Vile, a regular contributor to Architecture NZ, is a designer and urbanist.

His work ranges from residential architecture, public art and urban design to urban planning and cultural analysis. Completed formal architecture and urban design education in New York. Has taught design at Univ of Auckland School of Architecture and Planning and Unitec.

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