How to design our post-Covid cities

Mat Brown Principal architect with Warren and Mahoney What do you think? Email



Stuff NZ Newspapers


They say, in comedy, that timing is everything. The same might be said of city planning. Get it right and everyone’s laughing, get it wrong, and it’s just a bad joke. New Zealand’s late entry to the Western world has shaped our built environment in a peculiar way. Our postEuropean cities didn’t have much time to find their feet before the car promised an independence from proximity. The Civic had just opened in Auckland, in 1929, and the city’s population ticked past the 200,000 mark when Le Corbusier dreamed of the City of Tomorrow, where far flung places are connected by roads. And so it began. Our cities sprawled, with geography being the only constraint. Auckland suffered most, blessed with flat land, lots of coastline and a hospitable climate. People-centered pockets did find a foothold, focused around commerce and trams, but the car quickly became the determinant and, unlike those European, pre-automobile cities, we never had the chance to design for people. The past two years changed the way we think about how people live in our cities. For those who can, the workplace has decentralised, with work and home becoming blurred. We’ve found working from home to be comfortable, convenient and flexible. So much so that even as the public health risk subsides, there is hesitation in returning to the office. That hesitation is the manifestation of the failures of our cities. The benefits of working from home are shaping our behaviour and the homes of the future. They’re shaping the brief for architects, adding just a little bit of Gross Floor Area to each apartment. There’s even an argument that working from home might entitle you to a little bit more salary. A subsidy, if you like, for using your own power and internet. A little bit extra to cover the cost of renting or buying that home with the study nook, instead of the one without. As we find ways to adapt to this new lifestyle, it’s worth pondering, what if it sticks? And more interestingly, what if it’s better? It’s not surprising that Auckland is losing its population. Mobility of workplace has shifted people’s priorities. People can leave, so they are. That’s not good for any place, and we should be worried. Cities have traditionally responded well to people’s needs. We are social creatures. People like being around people, and our cities provide that opportunity. But our virtual environment has loosened the city’s monopoly. People are finding they can be satisfied, independent of location. Our cities need to respond. The answer here is a city that gives us the best of both worlds. An integrated city that offers convenience, comfort and flexibility while promoting social interaction. Luckily, in this instance, New Zealand’s got a chance to get the timing right. This rebalancing of people and place is occurring just as our cities are reinventing themselves. Auckland’s Unitary Plan, along with the National Policy Statement on Urban Development and Housing Supply Bill are all big levers, being pulled simultaneously. The foundations for this change have been laid in Auckland, with the results of the Unitary Plan starting to emerge. Rather than an amalgamation of uses inside your house, we are seeing workplaces close to our homes, and homes closer to where people work. The emerging trend of adapting commercial offices into apartments displaces one use for another, bringing people to the city. Transport routes are supporting city-fringe, mixeduse developments, injecting commercial uses and amenity into the suburbs, while supporting greater connectivity objectives by supporting public transport. By grasping the opportunities that regulatory change presents, we can start to tailor our cities to become places that are livable and attractive to everyone. We’re seeing the emergence of a stronger social, economic and environmental view on how we should live in New Zealand. These ideas are not new. In fact, they’re very old ideas. It’s just that it took the last two years of disruption and the resulting rebalancing to create the opportunity for change. The time is now.