Beyond Autopia: the high social cost of New Zealand’s new roads building programme

SH18...somewhere north of Auckland

SH18…somewhere north of Auckland

After ten months in an urban laboratoire in Paris on a post-doc residency, I returned to Auckland, to realise that the city of my home and imagination has morphed into a belated version of sci-fi Autopia.

Autopia is the word that Reyner Banham used to describe Los Angeles in the 1960s. Banham, then a high profile architectural theorist and author, gushed in enthusing prose, about the way Angelenos were able to soar freely across their city, via the geometric coils and ribboning of interlacing freeways of the Californian urban landscape. Los Angeles was then considered the original futuristic supercity model, an urban-design techno-fantastical dreamscape, inspired by space travel, sci-fi TV and the popular Hollywood cartoon series The Jetsons. The ultimate personal mobility capsule, in this fantasy, was not the car, but a personal flying saucer. The Jetsons lived on a floating satellite, ate breakfasts from their kitchen vending machine, and the kids went to school on space stations that hovered in the endless blue sky of a perfect California day.

For Banham autonomous mobility defined Los Angeles as a modernist A-utopia. He argued that ‘driving’ shifted the consciousness of Angelenos, by presenting drivers with a constant stream of independent decisions, that could fashionably be described as ‘existential’. The car, for Banham, meant personal freedom, and the hermetic spatial envelope of the automobile allowed a certain detachment from the landscape and the society, which was now comfortably viewed from behind moving glass.

In Auckland in 2014 we might not be parking flying saucers, but the journey through these new smoothing corridors, that propel us from A-to-B, are as close to flying as one gets at ground level. Nothing could be further from the sensory overload and teeming humanity of the streets of Paris, than the Autopia of the Auckland landscape. Seduced by these cruise control fantasy zones, the lack of clutter, and not to mention pedestrians, we are saving seconds on our journey, as the landscapes we once knew, are quietly being screened out, or erased, as the visual field is cleansed of messiness by concrete fresco walls and sound-barriers set against monocultures of New Zealand native plants.

Since returning to Auckland, I was on one occasion, one of three people waiting at the magnificent New Lynn train station at 11am on a Tuesday morning, and the only person waiting at the state-of-the art Akoranga bus station on the North Shore at 9.30 on a Saturday morning, in an attempt to traverse the city via public transport. Previously I had waited on Lake Road in Devonport for forty minutes, as lines of cars drove past me, for a bus, that never arrived, and so I flagged a cab to take me to the bus station. After nine months of riding the metro in Paris, I keep re-discovering Auckland as these barren platforms, or people-less corridors, as Autopia.

The dark side to Autopia was summed up in the movie Traffic, when an Angeleno caught in an accident drama, declared that the people of Los Angeles experience such high degrees of social deprivation, that they rely on accidents to bring them together. This is the future we can look forward to in New Zealand as NZTA programme budgets keep swelling. Autopia robbed the neighbourhoods of Los Angeles of coherence and resilience, as the mega scale transit infrastructure ripped through the minor arteries and capillaries of the intimate human pathways.

Banham didn’t reflect upon the fact that the freeway culture of Los Angeles had replaced autonomous pedestrian pathways, and the former public transit system, causing irreversible loss of the self-organising street-level social streaming. The other social costs are legendary. In his essay Complexity and Coherence, urban theorist Nikos Salingaros, writing about scale in the urban environment claims that “interactions are naturally strongest at the smallest scale, and weakest at the largest scale. Reversing that order produces pathologies.”

Autopia disrupts social and environmental cohesion, reduces the incident of social encounters that build up urban intimacy, it keeps Autopians unsocialised and hermetically sealed off from other inhabitants and the landscape. Without people you do not build a social dimension of a city. In Paris, the daily streetscape is where you see the complex range of human interactivity, and become part of it. You see human abjection and poverty everywhere but also human affection. It’s part of the social code that a young man walks arm-in-arm with his elderly mother, or grandmother, alongside the canal on a spring evening. Parisians quietly reveal their familial intimacy in public spaces. On the Metro to Trocadero one afternoon, I saw a beautiful young woman in a fur jacket, stop texting for a moment, to hand a homeless woman a 50 Euro note. You also, see in the Parisian streetscape youths rioting, people marching against violence, people arguing and crying, police hustling or storm troopers swarming, but also many people kissing.

Banham didn’t always get it right. The human freedom he found and celebrated in Autopia isn’t true to reality, when we crawl slowly in stark afternoon sunlight, only knowing the person in front of us from their bumper, in a polluting queue, broken only by abrupt stop and start motion, waiting to enter the motorway, as the city is sliced up and quartered by intersections and traffic lights. I only saw two petrol stations in the ten months I was in Paris. In Auckland they are a dominant typology appearing at every major intersection.

Autopia is a corporate model of urbanism because it relies upon personal investment rather than government investment. It requires that we the citizens of Autopia buy and service cars,  register, insure, park, and sometimes crash, fix, but still we go on filling them endlessly with petrochemical fluids. Our newspapers in holiday season regularly run a front page story of a car wrapped around a telephone pole or down a ditch. Someone has lost a parent, a child, a friend. Worst of all, and deplorably, the number one statistic for infant mortality in Auckland is by accident in a residential driveway, committed by relatives of the victim. Besides contributing to climate emissions and chaos, the dedication of a not insignificant percentage of our income to auto mobility prevents us from spending it on our children, our holidays and our dreams.

Of course Autopia isn’t limited to Auckland, its tentacular reach is hungry and restless. In the Kapiti coast author Patricia Grace has successfully defended a block of her ancestral land, formerly the site of Tuku Rakau agricultural village, from being compulsorily acquired by the Transport Agency. In a rare victory the Maori Land Court upheld Grace’s application for her block to become a Maori reserve. In the meantime the meandering river-side walkway that follows the river from the village to the sea, cutting through public Kawakawa forest, and then through the special garden zones created voluntarily by Waikanae locals over many decades, is about to be severed by a six lane highway that has been vehemently opposed.

Autopia made sense in times of a glut of cheap oil that was the 1960s, but it makes far less sense now. There are few countries in the world currently with an extensive road-building programme such as ours. There is China, and Africa, where the Chinese are building roads. The Chinese and African road-building mission are largely about linking markets and shipping for international export. There is also Australia. Yet the antipodean road-building fervor doesn’t necessarily stack up as part of an export-based economic agenda. It seems that road building in New Zealand is geared towards one main outcome, to keep Kiwis driving, that is to keep us consuming oil. Our new roads may be beautiful but we are hardly trending on this.

Moving south the brave citizens of Wellington are currently embroiled in a legal battle in an attempt to place limits upon the architects of Autopia’s offering of a flyover. The proposed Basin flyover is what happens when the long arcing ambitions of Autopia clash with the human scale of an urban streetscape. A flyover is an Autopian architectural typology that regards the landscape underneath it as clutter. A flyover lifts us from the forces of gravity and allows us to hover unimpeded, even temporarily. Yet Aucklanders are watching with trepidation, and posting photos in shock on Facebook, at the height of columns appearing at the new landscape interchange of SH 16 and SH 20 at Waterview. Already the project has swallowed up 91 homes from the Waterview neighbourhood. Would you ever walk the small distance from Waterview to Point Chevalier beach now?

However the Basin flyover project is a significant stalling of the incessant march towards the Kiwi Autopia. Currently idling in a legal gridlock, the Flyover proposal has meet head-on resistance, from an organised and articulate local community. The Board of Inquiry’s cross-examination process reveals the very human process of urban planning. It also explains to me, a Wellington-born urban theorist and writer, why the Basin Reserve is so critical a public space within the larger Wellington urban fabric. As urban designer/landscape architect Megan Wraight has pointed out in her testimony to the Board of Inquiry, the environmental heritage of the Basin Reserve is a wetland, at a low point between the ridgelines of Mount Victoria and Te Aro, where the now underground Waitangi Stream that begins at source at Wellington Zoo, once mixed with channels of run-off from the ridgelines. Waitangi Stream was a natural hydro-dynamical system that followed the contours of a valley landscape and widened into a wetland at the Basin.

As early settlement was often dictated by access to fresh water, the natural stream system, was likely the site of the original pedestrian human pathways, created in barefoot by local Maori, and a gathering point for swimming, fishing, drinking, eeling, bathing etc. Perhaps even a long time ago a thirsty Moa or two, used to stop for a drink. Early pathways are the natural desire lines, the optimum route, and the original dynamical system, in the undesigned landscape. The original Basin wetland would have been a place of teeming biodiversity also. Wraight also points out that as a heritage feature of the built environment, the Basin is at the bottom of the valley, in a critical juncture that links the former Dominion Museum, the Carillon and the Governor General’s house in a heritage precinct. Yet the dominant roading system prevents the city from creating meaningful linkages to that heritage precinct.

The flyover battle reminds us that before we had roads and cricket grounds, we had waterways, and it was waterways that moved effortlessly through the landscape. This fact alone reveals something about the Basin Reserve that I have always sensed, and now my PhD research on urban dynamical systems confirms. Challenging, though it may be to the cricket lobby, the transition from wetland to cricket ground, has dislodged a significant natural hydro-dynamical flow pathway of the Wellington landscape. The resulting Basin Reserve as a roading system is a weird detour around an obstacle where there should be natural flow movements at the lowest point, the valley floor that criss-cross the city at that point.

From an urban dynamism perspective the natural convergence point, the place where all paths meet optimally, would be the void-like space in the centre of the Basin Reserve cricket pitch. This perhaps explains why the roading system around the Basin Reserve, reminds me of a ride in a fairground that moves fast around a centrifugal force, throwing your body against the edge, as the centre repels and grows emptier. Centrifugal systems create dissipation as they repel everything on the edges. The flyover proposes another tier of this same centrifugal movement, at dynamical odds with the natural convergence point in the centre of the Basin, and the heritage built spaces.

From an urban dynamical perspective the Basin Reserve is too critical a space, in its ability to provide coherence to the larger urban scheme, both socially, hydro-logically, aesthetically, environmentally, economically, and from a heritage perspective, to be confined in use to only one select demographic, or to be remodelled around only transport objectives. There is a relationship between urban movement and resilience.

In my research I observe urban waterscapes as sites of potent social cohesion in the urban social fabric. I would argue that an urban waterscape offers a rich suite of urban values including continuity of access, aesthetics, economic benefits in gentrification outcomes, connectivity, access and spatiality, and a waterscape exerts a stronger biomagnetic attraction across a wider representation of the social demographic. Waterscapes act as urban opiates and relaxation zones that provide a richer diversity of urban rhythms and democratic agency. If the waterscape include bioremediation zones, such as Wraight’s proposal then the values increase again adding environmental positives such as biodiversity, and urban vitality to the mix.

In a world oriented towards maximizing the urban water resource, the Basin Reserve would be actually what Basins are, a catchment for all trajectories, or flow systems, including water. The idea for a canal system between the Basin Reserve and Oriental Bay would extend the promenade zone for urban pedestrians providing a north-south axis of movement in the city. The east west axis could be a series of bridges north and south of the basin area that exist above canal level and provide for pedestrians, cyclists, trolley buses or trams, and cars. The valley floor would already be enunciated at water level. The bridges would also provide Wellingtonians with a view of the water system at street level. In this sense the entire Basin area becomes a metabolism point where water, social, heritage and transportation flows meet and pass through with greater democratic agency between layers of the urban fabric.

In this hypothetical scenario the Basin would gain coherence within the greater Wellington landscape. It would become part of the complex organising condition of the city and not just a space to be organised around. Instead of a centrifugal system the new dynamical space of the Basin would act like an attractor, a point of urban magnetism rich in layers of urban values. An attractor provides resilience to any dynamical system including a galaxy and a city. A true convergence point needs to be open space, not locked behind gates and high fences, it facilitates movement, creates linkages and multiple flows, some autonomous, but other collective flows for maximum efficiency.

The most resilient cities of the 21st century are not Autopian. After all Charles Jencks noted that modernism failed at the social dimension of urbanism because of its inability to produce a ‘meaningful’ or ‘liveable’ public realm. The most resilient cities do not privilege cars, but sustain a complexity of urban values, are built upon a positive urban dynamism in which intimate pathways are given as much consideration as those of national significance. As New Zealanders we deserve our cities to be designed around best practice resilience models, not throwbacks to an era of fantasy and delusion.

For further reading go to Where the worlds unsold cars go to die

Britain, US, Out of town shopping is dying

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4 thoughts on “Beyond Autopia: the high social cost of New Zealand’s new roads building programme

  1. Would you agree to let me republish the Wellington part of yr Autopia essay on the wellington.scoop.co.nz .website? We have published scores of articles against the flyover in recent years, but yours is the most persuasive that I’ve ever read.

  2. Pingback: Moving Beyond Autopia | Save The Basin Reserve

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