Designers need a reality check


I had a wry smile last week when I read in the Daily News about transport operators taking district councillors around New Plymouth to experience their difficulties in negotiating the obstacles created by new-look city design.

We seem to have handed over many facets of urban design to qualified people who don’t always appear to be blessed with common sense.

Unkindly, I wonder if they sometimes lack the experience to translate the concept from paper to real life and, wrapped up in the mystique of professionalism, their splendid paper plans are accepted and actioned without questions beyond budget management. The end result is urban design, at best original, at worst clonal, which does not always stand the test of time. It doesn’t seem very long ago that Pukeariki Landing was developed and opened with much hoop-la.

It wasn’t that long ago. Now it is being ripped out and replaced by new-wave urban design.

The Husband does not frequent town often. I think he is genetically programmed to be happier at home. But on a recent jaunt along the city streets he was moved to comment on the lamp posts in Currie St – noting their dominance and their downright ugliness. And it suddenly occurred to me to wonder when we allowed urban planners to become the new sculptors of our cities. Those burgundy lamp poles are a dominant design feature, albeit not a particularly graceful or pleasing one, to our eyes at least. They will also date extremely quickly, being a fashion item.

I pondered the huge outcry over the wind wand, the even more dramatic uprising against the proposed bomb shelter sculpture on the walkway and the acclaim for the Tohi sculpture on the corner of Brougham and Powderham streets. Works of art in public places are subjected to intense scrutiny. But the urban planners can slip in sculptural features almost unnoticed and generally unchallenged. Take another look at the avenue of burgundy steel on Currie St.

In my local town of Waitara we have undergone the mandatory revamp of small towns. And there is no doubt that it is nice to see trees in the main street – even low-grade trees like the golden gleditisias. They look particularly smart with the flash uplighting at night. It felt churlish to complain about the downside of the Waitara upgrade. It wasn’t until I talked to other people about the difficulties in parking that I realised it was not my driving skills that were at fault.

Essentially every third car park has been sacrificed to a concrete peninsular that is home to a robinia and an uplight. But those concrete surrounds extend so far out from the kerb (a good two metres) that it has become extremely difficult to manoeuvre the car into the remaining space if another car has already parked in the twin bay. A colleague tells me he cannot fit his ute in to the parks at all if one is already occupied. Take a look along the main street of Waitara and odds-on you will see some of the worst carparking you have ever seen; cars at all sorts of angles and often a long way adrift of the kerb. Did anybody tell the designers that a town like Waitara has a large proportion of older drivers, and of drivers who are not confident to drive into the city but who have always been happy enough in their local town?

One of the nice things about shopping in your local town is that you can park in the main street, often just outside the shop you plan to visit. Not any longer. Great concrete-barriered islands ensure that many drivers follow the city trend and opt for the side streets. But wait a minute, this isn’t the city – it’s Waitara. Somewhere it must be possible to marry together attractive design and good old common sense.

The upper reaches of Liardet St have similarly seen carparking sacrificed to trees – but in this area they warrant a higher grade tree. No common old robinias here. No, such a good area of town warrants the majestic kauri. Pardon me? Not for nothing is the kauri known as the widow maker. Long-term it has the disconcerting habit of dropping major branches with no regard for anybody walking below. And, of course, they are a giant tree in the long term.

Presumably the Liardet St kauri are already on borrowed time and will be sacrificed long before they reach anything resembling maturity. Ten years, if Pukeariki Landing is any guide.

But in the meantime, in an area where carparking is desperately short, every third or fourth carpark has gone west. But at least the concrete abutments are not as intrusive as those in Waitara. Don’t get me wrong. We need trees in our cities and towns. And given the overwhelming desire by the majority of residents to make sure that no tree dare grow taller than two metres, we need public plantings of trees.

It may be an old-fashioned view, but I wish we would see more public plantings of quality trees that have a reasonable chance of reaching maturity. I don’t see trees as a disposable commodity or appropriate for planned obsolescence. It would be better to get the selection right in the first place and the site chosen for its long-term suitability. Otherwise we are destined to have amenity planting that is strictly utility and relatively temporary.

Speaking of trees in public places, Mark is tearing his hair out at a small item he found in the Midweeker about dealing to the historic yellow pohutukawa on the Waitara riverbank. Tearing his hair out because of the apparent level of ignorance in those making the decisions. These trees are not hybrids created by Sir Victor Davies (as claimed in the article), but a naturally occurring yellow clone that he went to great lengths to introduce.

The Waitara trees will be the largest in the country and V. C. (as Sir Victor is commonly referred to) talked Thomas Borthwick into planting them there. This was the start of the magnificent row of pohutukawa that line the river bank, hiding an industrial eyesore.

Mark attended a Community Board meeting some years ago where the strong recommendation was endorsed to limb up these pohutukawa to take out the bottom growth and let light and views through. Shame it was never done and now there are problems with the excess shading. The actions to be taken now are likely to be far more extreme than necessary, no doubt at great expense, but lauded by a local councillor as cleaning up an eyesore.

It is not the trees that are the eyesore. It is the industrial site right next to them.*

*Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.