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Focus on urban design at conference next week

News from Jasmax
Following the government’s recent announcement for a 10 year investment plan to get Auckland moving again1, there couldn’t be a better time for urban designers and city planners to get together to talk about how to shape New Zealand cities for the future.

The Urban Design conference is to be held in Wellington next week. The conference will include ten keynote speakers, a specialist panel of sector leaders and up to 40 concurrent session presentations over the 14th and 15th.

Urban design is a critical contributor to developing competitive and distinctive cities, those cities with the x factor that provide quality living for the inhabitants and attract both business investment and tourists. Urban design strategies have transformed New Zealand cities over the last 10 years, notably on both Auckland’s and Wellington’s waterfront and Christchurch CBD post-earthquake rebuild.

But given its vital importance to our economy and wellbeing, why is urban design such an under-discussed issue in New Zealand?

Head of Urban Design at multi-disciplinary architecture firm Jasmax, Alistair Ray, wants to change that. He is one of the Urban Design Forum’s committee driving the two-day Urbanism New Zealand Conference in Wellington.

The theme of the conference is ‘Joining the Dots’, so named because the conference is addressing the lack of a cohesive design strategy or shared vision across the professions that contribute to urban design outcomes in New Zealand’s major centres.

Alistair Ray: “We don’t have an Institute of Urban Designers in New Zealand, like Engineers and Architects do. It’s a vital conversation for New Zealand but the last time there was a forum for a national discussion like this was in 2005.”

Clearly things have changed rapidly since then, and with the government’s recently announced commitment to spending $28 billion on Auckland’s rapid transport network over the next decade, Alistair believes now is the crucial time to get it right.

“The key is to stay agile and forward-thinking. New Zealand is a relatively young nation, and only recently has our urban population reached a point where we can implement some of the advantages of good urbanism.

“Auckland in particular, is at a critical juncture. We are looking toward a future enabled by public transport. Projects I am involved in at Jasmax, such as the City Rail Link, light rail to the airport and electrification to Pukekohe will be game-changers for the city. But it’s not just Auckland. New Zealand is at the point where, as a nation, we must be on the same page with our approach to the design of our towns and cities. Now is the time for cohesive, collaborative strategic planning and big picture thinking.”

Alistair acknowledges that the process of change can seem disruptive, but the outcomes can be tremendous when the community has the opportunity to contribute. Alistair sees a growing number of people who want to live in attractive, well-connected urban environments.

“If we can’t move beyond the quarter-acre dream, entire generations will be locked out of living in cities, which will stagnate as a consequence. We need to encourage density in our cities, but in a way that works well for everyone. It’s an exciting time for urban design in New Zealand, but we need to ensure we get it right.”

The conference is outcome focused. At the close of the conference, Alistair is one of the panel who will put their findings forward to the government. Minister Phil Twyford will give the opening address.

“He is both housing and transport minister,” says Alistair, “which suggests that the current government understands the crucial connection between housing and transport. With 45,000 new inhabitants every year, how to grow well is the biggest issue facing urban design in Auckland, as well as our other high-growth cities around New Zealand.”