It's time to talk about urban design

Following the government’s recent announcement for a 10 year investment plan to get Auckland moving again, 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, says head of urban design at Jasmax, Alistair Ray.

He’s one of those behind the upcoming Urbanism New Zealand Conference, happening in Wellington next week. Ray says urban design is a critical contributor to developing competitive and distinctive cities, those with the “x factor that provide quality living for the inhabitants and attract both business investment and tourists.”

 Alistair Ray is the head of urban design at Jasmax.

Alistair Ray is the head of urban design at Jasmax.

Ray says 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?”

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 says key issues around urban design in NZ need more discussion.

Alistair Ray says key issues around urban design in NZ need more discussion.

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.”

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, Ray 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.”

 A render of Auckland's City Rail Link courtesy of Jasmax.

A render of Auckland's City Rail Link courtesy of Jasmax.

Ray acknowledges that the process of change can seem disruptive, but the outcomes can be tremendous when the community has the opportunity to contribute. He says increasingly people want to live in attractive, well-connected urban environments.

“He is both housing and transport minister,” says Ray,  “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.”

The conference in on May 14 and 15.