A "recovering" Aussie landscape architect explains why he chose NZ

One of the reasons Cam Perkins says he was attracted to New Zealand was Auckland’s Te Aranga Maori design principles. The “recovering” Australian, as he likes to refer to himself, says the whole idea of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship of the land, in the design process was massively appealing.

“I’ve never really had an opportunity to work like that before, because in Australia the work that we did with the indigenous population was really quite restrained,” says the now principal landscape architect for Auckland’s urban regeneration agency, Panuku. “That’s largely because of the country’s recent history and the policy positions of concurrent governments.

“What really attracted me here was this idea that it’s part of the design process, to be working as custodians of the land. It appealed to me because it aligns with my own personal views about what we should be doing with our cities and open spaces.”

 Cam Perkins (right) with food truck entrepeneurs – Maddie of Blitzd Smoothie Bowls and Pato of Good Karma.

Cam Perkins (right) with food truck entrepeneurs – Maddie of Blitzd Smoothie Bowls and Pato of Good Karma.

It’s a year since Perkins arrived in Auckland. His CV includes roles in Brisbane, the Middle East and South East Asia, with the Panuku role his first public service position. Previously he’d worked as a consultant for Brisbane City Council and the Queensland Government. “We’d receive our briefs and there were always a lot of questions from us as a design team. ‘How did you come up with this brief’ and ‘how does it achieve what we are trying to move towards as a country and a city.’”

That’s where his interest in Government policy started and he began looking for a regeneration agency job so he could start to be involved in some of the policy making for a city.

“I’d seen the work being done in Fort St, in O’Connell St, and particularly around the fact that the city was measuring data and feeding it back into the city to tell people the uplift that the city could expect with positive change. So this whole idea that Fort St could have a 40 percent reduction in parking and experience a 430 percent increase in retail spend. That sort of data coming out and being used by the city really intrigued me.”

Perkins’ new role is a slight departure from what many people know of what a landscape architect does. It’s more based on advocacy for the design outcome, he says, so he doesn’t get too involved in design specifications or planting lists. “What I will do is develop the design brief, within the context of our regeneration projects,for our consultant teams who then use  that to inform the direction that they might take. So it’s more of a guiding role from what people might understand of the normal landscape architect role.”

 Active and accessible public spaces are essential for healthy and connected cities. The Eastern Viaduct is the latest addition to Auckland’s Waterfront. 

Active and accessible public spaces are essential for healthy and connected cities. The Eastern Viaduct is the latest addition to Auckland’s Waterfront. 

Perkins believes the sole responsibility of the profession is to leave a positive legacy for future generations. “And a great way to do that is to reconnect people with the land,” he says.

“For example one of the ways that we are looking at around the waterfront is to perhaps have some sort of water quality measuring devices where you might be able to see what exactly is in the water.. You might have some sort of public art installation with a microscope and be able to see both the life and the pollution in the water. So there’s ways and means in which we can start to educate people through our projects, showing them their individual impact on the environment.”

He’s particularly excited about two projects Panuku’s working on - the Eastern Viaduct in front of the Maritime Museum, and Onehunga.

The former he likes to refer to as an “urban lab”. “It’s a bit of a test to see how people want to use the space. It used to be Auckland’s premier waterfront parking spot. This was a space for 50 cars, returning revenue for the council. But that space also sees about four million pedestrian movements every year, and 250,000 cycle movements. So mixing these sort of active transport modes with parking didn’t make a lot of sense and it was really starting to be a health and safety issue.

“Along with that it was one of the first ports of call for people who were arriving in Auckland. We’ve found from speaking to visitors that they were dropping their bags in the hotel and walking down to the waterfront because that’s what they know about – the waterfront.”

 The Pump Track on Auckland's Eastern Viaduct has quickly become a lunchtime destination for local office workers.

The Pump Track on Auckland's Eastern Viaduct has quickly become a lunchtime destination for local office workers.

CCTV has been set up to monitor how people use the space, to help the team to understand what people are doing, and when. Most recently a modular pump track has been installed which has proved very popular with kids and families who are using Auckland’s cycle infrastructure to reach an active play destination. Carefully curated food trucks provide good value eating options and Panuku is trialing a range of different furniture and modular play elements in the space. “The traditional approach has been to design in a static way that might stay in place for twenty or thirty years. The approach we are aiming for now is permanently temporary, which means we are developing a kit of parts that can be moved around different locations depending on what we’ve got on, or what season it is. We’re demonstrating how the public realm can be better used for the people of the city.”

Ask Perkins what he personally brings to his role and he’ll say his powers of advocacy (that word again) and communicating purpose, driven by a passion to deliver a better future for future generations. “The decisions that our leaders are making in cities ultimately lock in futures for five, ten, fifty years depending on the projects. It’s so important that we get these decisions right and that we are able to convince our elected leaders of the sorts of decisions they need to be making and why. And that can be quite hard because we have such a short term political cycle. Decisions need to be made with the future of the planet and long term future of the city and its people in mind.”

Perkins himself plans on hanging round long term. He says he’d like to be able to call New Zealand home. And just a heads up Roger MacDonald. His big dream is to be the CEO of a regeneration agency one day.