Simon Wilson: Queen St and the tactics of making a better city

OPINION:

Tactical urbanism. It’s the small things people do to change the streets and other public spaces, when the big things are too hard.

Tactical urbanism has been around a long while. The cafe owners who put tables and chairs on the footpath before they were allowed to were pioneers of tactical urbanism.

And look what a difference they made. Few ideas have ever been as successful in changing our streetscapes for the better. The pleasure of sitting outside ranks right up there with the invention of footpaths, sealed roads and drains. Also ramped edges to footpath crossings, and cycleways.

Graffiti artists are tactical urbanists. So are people who go out at night and use planters and the like to turn their little street into a cul de sac, to stop rat runners. Heroes.

Mostly, tactical urbanism used to mean something citizens did when the council couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make things better themselves.

More recently, though, the term has been appropriated by councils themselves. Transport and urban planning agencies and their contractors use it to describe their own cheap and experimental trials, to see what works before they spend the big bucks.

Waka Kotahi, the NZ Transport Agency, even has a Tactical Urbanism Handbook, written to help councils and contractors get it right.

Typically, the tools they use include planter boxes to widen the footpaths or restrict traffic, carparks converted into places to sit, paint on the roads, day-glo plastic sticks.

Perhaps most famously, in 2009 New York’s commissioner of transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, closed part of Times Square to traffic for a six-month trial and put out an array of picnic chairs and artificial grass.

The world acclaimed that trial, although Sadik-Khan had to fight local businesses and everyone else who could not bear the idea that pedestrians should be prioritised.

That went on for years. But Times Square, once an endless traffic jam, is now one of the top 10 retail districts in the world.

Sadik-Khan visited New Zealand nearly 10 years ago. She spoke to a packed Aotea Centre and was introduced by an excited Lester Levy, then early into his role as chairman of the Auckland Transport (AT) board.

Levy declared that Auckland, led by AT, was on the cusp of something great: an inspired new commitment to urban design that would transform the way we use our streets, with benefits to community, commerce, safety, public health and, of course, the climate.

That was the last we heard from him. Levy was in that job for 10 years but, after his night of Sadik-Khan promises, he sank without trace. AT could not have moved more slowly or more minimally to transform the streetscapes of this city if it had tried.

Why? Because it wasn’t really trying. My reading is that too many of its senior execs, enabled by Levy and the board, have not been committed to making a better city for pedestrians, cyclists and everyone else not in a car. It is simply a distraction from the main event: driving.

Wellington doctor David Tripp had a good phrase for it this month, when he addressed the Wellington City Council. He was talking about Waka Kotahi, but his comments apply equally to AT. The officials were, he said, chained to every car and every carpark.

When tactical urbanism works, it’s really good. The circles painted by the Auckland Design Office (ADO) on lower Shortland St, in my view, are brilliant.

They tell drivers to take special care and they give pedestrians the confidence to step out. Great traffic calming, great promotion of people on foot, done very cheaply, easy to remove if it didn’t work, and they look great.

Auckland Transport hated it. Didn’t conform to the standard plans for what you can do on a street. Besides, they were the roading authority, it was their job, not the ADO’s.

But the ADO prevailed, the circles stayed and they have since been repeated in other locations.

The ADO, in fact, was the lead agency when the City Centre Masterplan and its associated project, Access for Everyone (A4E), were enthusiastically adopted by the council in 2018.

Both plans were supposed to lead to a big reduction in cars in the city centre, so that it could be better used by everyone else. They propose a grand vision for Queen St.

But in 2019 council disbanded the ADO and ever since progress on the masterplan and A4E has slowed to a crawl. Tactical urbanism projects have been few and far between.

Then came Covid, and the urgent need for the council to introduce social-distancing measures on Queen St. With AT in charge, some very poor aesthetic decisions were made.

Tactical urbanism is like most things: some of it is good, some bad, and most is in the middle. Quality exists on a bell curve. And last year, sadly, Queen St found itself is at the wrong end of the curve.

The problem with bad tactical urbanism is that it infuriates people.

There’s a lesson in this: quality is important. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to be led by people with high standards, good imaginations and a commitment to making really good things happen.

In cities we supposedly aspire to be like, from Sydney to Stockholm, there is usually a chief architect or design leader at a very senior level, who is empowered to act. Auckland, instead, relies on traffic engineers.

The odd thing about tactical urbanism, however, is that even when it’s good it creates outrage. The council produced a markedly improved plan for Queen St last week, with tactical urbanist trials embedded in it, and the opponents found new things to complain about and doubled down with lawsuits.

Tactical urbanism, by virtue of being “temporary”, is also valuable because it allows councils to deal with regulations that conspire mightily against change.

As Wellington researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw put it recently, “Currently every change to every single carpark has to be consulted on under the various local government and transport acts. The practical effect of this is huge, endless consultations, reworking of plans, opportunities to lobby individual councillors by business owners. The justice effect is that the opinion of one (usually) shop owner on a carpark change is weighed against the measured wellbeing of all citizens.”

Streets are public spaces. As public needs change, we need easier ways to change how we use them.

The landlords and others who have gone to court to try to stop progress on Queen St say the Auckland Council has been too slow and too mediocre in its urban design work. It’s true, and the lack of design leadership is part of it.

But the awful irony is that it’s those same landlords, along with Heart of the City and others, who have used the cumbersome regulations to slow the council’s progress. Every step of the way.

And what does that do? It empowers the officials who never wanted much change anyway, and it can make the others too afraid to try.

We’d have been better off if they had just found the courage to turn the whole street into a busway, cycleway and pedestrian mall.

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