Auckland: growth, metabolism, vitality…

Auckland sprawl is the focus of an excellent forum Auckland Growth Studio hosted by Unitec School of Landscape Architecture whose current studio project addresses the question: Can we fit the next 1 million Aucklanders inside the current urban limits….?

The forum addresses Auckland’s future shape and size, uncontrolled sprawl, the compact city ideal, the issues of densification, infrastructure etc, as it is represented by major players including those in local governance, property lobby groups., development corporations, design agencies and academics.

Sprawl is the primary organising pattern of urbanism in response to globalisation according to Dutch biologist/urbanist Arjen Mulder in the book TransUrbanism. Mulder’s book and other contemporary urban theory provides a contextual frame of reference for this global urban pattern that is defining cities everywhere. The more recent book Ecological Urbanism published by Harvard decribes sprawl in NYC, as developers concentrate their investment on the outer limits of the city.

“NYC has 47,500 vacant land parcels totalling more than 17,000 acres, NYC faces an acute housing shortage, and the fastest growing part of the New York area is in the Pocono Mountains of north-eastern Pennsylvania. There far from the city core, forests are being cleared for big box stores, high speed roadways and low-density subdivision for long-distance commuters.”

Interestingly the retroftting architectural design industry in the US is increasingly geared towards big box stores and the detritus of the mall-building industry. Check out which indexes those failed and failing mall enterprises across America. There are real limits to retail-driven urban design viability. Yet in Auckland we seem to be driven by that same retail development paradigm.

According to Bradley Nixon development manager of Progressive Enterprises, the largest property developer in New Zealand, the primary driving force of Auckland growth is driven by competition between supermarkets for market share…Speaking candidly to a room of budding landscape architects Nixon describes the localised version of the transurban condition.

“We’re the largest property developer in New Zealand. We do around on average about $1 billion dollars worth of work every two years on development…We’re very very large. We end up driving development in around centres and new centres, and as a result that gives us the gross volume in terms of the dollar value. The supermarket game is a war. The only way you really gain market share is to nick sales off competitors. So you basically are trying, doing this constantly, battling each other, by trying to put more stores on the ground. Also strategically where you are actually able to steal trade from competitors in some way. So that’s what we do and that’s the reason why we do our own development. As a result of being so large and in being such a vested interest, we meddle in everything including town planning, and what we think should happen. We have our own ideas. Infact Progressive have been give such a very long rope to meddle probably further and beyond what Progressive would even ordinarily be interested in… which is why we have taken part in working with Dushko (Unitec) and David (Auckland Council) on the Auckland plan.”

Nixon advocates for the retrofitting of Auckland industrial spaces and in designing according to industry., but also for building housing to allow for low-density sub division, because apartments in Auckland are harder to fund, expensive to build, and have a range of legal complications in terms of title that banks don’t favour. Auckland thus faces real hurdles legalistically in terms of growing density if its planning regulations create a bias in land-hungry building typologies. This kind of design prerogative draws upon a contemporary American urban paradigm rather than a European one. It’s a culture of condos and supermalls stretching across the picturesque green glades on the fringe of Tamaki Makarau. What’s more Nixon is pro car and quickly dismissive of the capacity and viability of public transport. So the future scenario of the rural margin of Auckland making way for more supermarket carparks is not unlikely.

Yet research recognises that American cities built for the private motor vehiclea re less resilient than European cities, so should this be our model?

Is growth even the right metaphor? What if we shift our emphasis on growth to health? In that body-centred idiom ideas of metabolism, circulation and even vitality begin to emerge in a new urban dialectic. The idea of livability for the citizens is as much part of the dialectic as profitability for its investors.

The idea of metabolism and urban acupuncture is nicely described in this quote by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. “The elementary principles of acupuncture, which is that practising micro-interventions in particular area of a body in pain provokes a series of vital small reactions which, taken together, result in renewed well being. Thus carrying out small yet consistent interventions in the body of a city gradually brings about a slow yet irreversible change in the urban fabric.”

Mohsen Mostafavi writes, “the blurring of boundaries, real and virtual, as well as urban and rural – implies a greater connection and complementarity between the various parts of a given territory. Conceptually akin to acupuncture, the interventions in and transformations of an area often have a significant impact beyond perceived physical limits. Thinking simultaneously at small and large scales calls for an awareness that is currently unimaginable in many existing patterns of legal, political and economic activity. One of the major challenges of ecological urbanism is therefore to define the conditions of governance under which it could operate that would result in a more cohesive regional planning model.”

This kind of energy tweaking model of urabn development consists of micro-actions, cultural /social practices, thinking patterns, and value systems that inform and shape the visible content of the city. Certain pathways and alignments generate the city’s vitality.

Can we design for Auckland’s healthy urban metabolism. Can we make connections with progressive ideas of theory and practice that have been applied successfully elsewhere such as Curitiba, in Bordeaux, in the Lille Metropole, in Copenhagen. How can we design with the manifesto of landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism, urban acupuncture, ideas of urban metabolism that inform the thinking in this course.

How does people-centred spaces as well as green spaces become the organising agents of Auckland growth. How will libraries, community centres, public spaces, abandoned golf courses, Museum roofs, theatres, churches, etc become the metabolisers of change.

In our recent joint submission on the Auckland Plan submitted in November 2011 with urbanists Tiffiny Hodgson and Hannah Ickert, we wrote

“The most rewarding discussion in Auckland today is therefore not about, intensification – about up or out – but in the recognition of the qualities of the circulatory system of the city. Here we mean the entire metabolism of Auckland and how interdependencies are leveraged to enhance the generative forces of collective living. Its the performance of the transverse networks of centres, water courses, villages, hamlets, open spaces, logistical zones, seed towns, maraes, tribal grounds, volcanic networks, wastes processing, water harvesting, electricity generation etc and how these work together. The variegated nuance of Auckland’s urban field emerges through proactive communities, lively urban narratives, social cohesion, sense of place, that contribute to the authenticity of the lifestyle of Aucklanders across the entire conurbation. We are a diverse place and require a Plan that leads towards the multiple use of spaces as increasing the connections between our peoples is vital in the liveability continuum.”

Jaqs Clarke

Thanks to Unitec for recording and sharing this important forum.


Mohsen Mostafavi. “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?” Ecological Urbanism. Eds. Mostafavi, Mohsen and Gareth Doherty. Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, 2010. Print.

Manuel De Landa A thousand years of nonlinear history New York : Zone Books, 1997.

Luca Molinari, Guerilla Museum, On Tadao Ando Museums, New York: Skira, 2009, 238

From Submission on Auckland Plan November 2011 authored by
Tiffany Hodgson [BFA, B Arch, MSc(Urbanism)]
Hannah Ickert [BLA, M Urb Des]
Jacquie Clarke [BA, MA, PhD in architectural theory]


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