With thanks to conversations with Ludo Campbell-Reid, Ralph Webster,
and Frith Walker
Twenty years ago, the City of Auckland was suffering from a depressed economy, declining public health, and a short-term, self-centric viewpoint called “Auckland disease.” Now a decade later with a ten-fold increase in private investment, public transport patronage doubling every year, and the strengthening of its social and natural systems, Auckland’s embrace of Regenerative Placemaking principles has resulted in this remarkable transformation and the recent recognition as the most liveable city in the world.
Employing regenerative thinking in the sense of re-activating and enlivening the city; using the city to support social and ecological capacity; and activating these strategies through fine-grained testing of ideas and active agency of stakeholders; Auckland’s efforts to revitalize the heart of the city have been extraordinary.
For example, take the transformation of Fort and Elliott Streets. On Fort Street, there has been a 54% increase in pedestrian volumes and a 47% increase in consumer spending, while on Elliott Street there has been a 10% pedestrian and 27% spending increase.
However, while these are tangible examples in simple terms, there are many additional reflections to map Regenerative Placemaking components over the past decade in Auckland. Six of note are:
- Living systems thinking
Understood as a philosophy that studies the interrelation and dependence of all stakeholders and environments in a given place, for Auckland this approach was leveraged to emphasize reconnecting to its natural systems – the bay, rivers, and mountains.
In practice, this was realized by:
- The rebuilding of a plaza – cantilevered over the water to improve its ability to withstand earthquakes – as a mussel habitat that helped clean the water and improve the eco-system
- The redevelopment of a vibrant waterfront not with a “anchor tenant” to drive commerce but an “anchor playground” to foster community and children’s health
- The integration of public transport connections within privately financed projects to encourage health transport, reducing the reliance and negative impact of cars
- The repurposing of a discussed offramp into the Nelson Street Cycleway known as Te Ara I Whiti (“Pink Path”). Inspired by the Highline in New York City, this Pink Path has an LED mood lighting system that constantly changes the Māori name
- Transdisciplinary knowledge exchange
Focused on consulting with everyone to gain significant ideas and better solutions, Ralph Webster, the Auckland Council’s former program development manager said that working on a Regenerative Placemaking development was not “just a team sport, but an intergenerational team sport.”
- Diversifying decision making and being inclusive of indigenous populations, the Auckland Council appointed a Māori Design Leader resulting in greater custodianship and integration of the Māori language and worldview in all activities
- A governance structure that functioned like a fractal or mycelian network of engagement and responsibility, meaning decisions flowed from the smallest communities to the highest levels of decision making and back down again
- Rigorous and inclusive community engagement
Community engagement done well means that they are agents in the eventual outcome and have a sense of custodianship and stewardship which is critical. This creates attachment and belonging leading to positive social, ecological, and economic outcomes.
Critically this engagement should not only be about extracting ideas and good will from participants it is ensuring they gain benefit from the experience also as Webster said, “In addition to working with all stakeholders in projects to increase the vitality and vibrancy of a place, one of the most critical parts is to create the potential to have fun, laugh and play through the process and embed it in the end result.”
In Auckland this came to life in practical terms by:
- Speaking to all stakeholders with the intent to learn something: from children to entrepreneurs, homeless to shop keepers. And remember, nature is a stakeholder too
- Connect into the Indigenous worldview
- Listen, do, learn, do, listen, do, learn, do – evaluate and reflect, and then repeat to measure the implication and drive success
- Biophilia and sustainability practices
Throughout Auckland, connection to nature is an integral part of how spaces are looked at, from working with threatened species to how to plan support biodiversity. This is evidenced through experimentation with green roofs on shipping container activation nodes, using them for insects and other small threatened species.
Auckland’s focus on nature enables them to imagine future potential, and this leads to human benefits such as reduced urban heat and biophilic benefits with a stronger connection to nature.
These practices are put into action by asking these simple questions:
- How can ecological value be added?
- How can we connected ecosystems around us to interact, learn and contribute?
- How can we realize and communicate the social and economic benefits of creating a nature- filled place?
- Regenerative placemaking interventions
Testing within the community was an integral part of the City of Auckland’s processes and their work with stakeholders. Practically, this collaboration has resulted in the Activate Auckland plan to support the 30-year strategic redevelopment plan of the City.
- Avoiding gentrification
Auckland has attracted its share of critique for increased housing prices, yet this was addressed by creating innovative models to support home ownership and community planning.
- Collaboration across agencies and community on urban innovative home ownership models Shared ownership (SO) is a policy alternative widens access to affordable housing to low and moderate-income households by allowing the potential owner to purchase a share in a property (between 20-80%), while a third party (e.g., a housing association) owns the remaining share, on which the shared owner pays rent.
- On the waterfront, rather than displacing existing businesses, fish markets were made central to the ongoing development. This allowed local workers to stay employed and protected these businesses.
While Regenerative Placemaking is an ever-evolving, living development approach, Auckland demonstrates through its transformation as one of the least to most-liveable cities that with incredible amounts of private investment, collaboration, preservation, and conservation that a socially, ecologically, and socially thriving city can be willed. All it takes is commitment and vision!