Urban Leader Interview

An interview with Garth has been featured in the latest issue of the Urban Leader (No. 75). The Urban Leader is a bi-monthly newsletter for Urban Design Protocol signatories. It provides regular, informative and relevant information about urban design initiatives to help champion good urban design in New Zealand.


INFO no. 741 | 9 June 2015

As part of our series of short interviews, the Urban Leader chatted with urban designer Garth Falconer, from Reset Urban Design, on the history, challenges and future of urban environments in New Zealand.

History of urban design in New Zealand

Garth has recently published his book: ‘Living in Paradox: a history of urban design across kainga, towns and cities in New Zealand’. His research shows that in the 19th century New Zealand was established firstly through cities.

“New Zealand cities were reactions to industrialisation that was happening at that time in Victorian England which was unplanned, highly congested, highly unhealthy…New Zealand was marketed as a utopia that was Arcadian, it was individualised, it was pastorally-based, but it was paradoxically accommodated mainly in cities”.

Subsequently, Garth states that New Zealand adopted the “garden suburb as a primary urban form” which has led to the “dominance of individualised bungalows or villas” across our cities and small towns.

Challenges within urban environments

Garth believes that today’s challenges are explicitly urban issues, such as growth, transport congestion and housing affordability. To meet these challenges we need to provide high quality environments, and Garth cites the Wellington waterfront redevelopment as a great example of urban design that helped the city reinvent itself after decline in the 1980’s. Smaller places such as Matakana, which has developed from a tiny crossroads into a celebrated market town, show that a rural service town can also benefit from integrated high quality urban design.

Another challenge is intensification but uptake to higher density may take some time as Garth states “it’s a big transition” and we have a history of poor quality examples.

“Twenty years ago we went through a bad patch of poorly designed medium and high density developments that has stymied demand.”

Transport is also a huge issue and Garth highlights that he would “love to see our rail and all public transport system up and running and working together”. Garth feels that alternative modes of transport need to be provided with more funding and active promotion.

“We’ve got to get the cycling and walking networks in place and totally connected, that has to happen up front, rather than a luxury add on once we’ve completed the motorway system.”

The future for urban environments

Despite all these challenges, Garth is excited and optimistic about the future of urban environments in New Zealand and says we are “resourceful and creative people”. However, we need to develop our own unique way of designing places and spaces that is a fusion of the best parts of our lifestyles, egalitarian philosophy and creativity, rather than exclusively adopt overseas models.

Garth describes Skypath, the proposed walking and cycling track across the Auckland Harbour Bridge, as “one of the most exciting initiatives around”.

“The cycling and walking community created this idea of Skypath and a self-funding development…but it came out of community frustration of not being able to walk or cycle across the harbour bridge, which is the single biggest link in the whole network of movement in Auckland”.

Housing affordability is a particular challenge at the moment and Garth believes that housing projects need to be designed to “make the most of the land” not only by creating homes on small land footprints but providing a range of living and ownership options. Low rise apartments of four to six storeys can also provide more housing choice at lower cost.

“They do fill a niche which is missing at the moment. We’ve got individualised houses in the periphery, and in the centre we’ve got a series of newly arising tower blocks. So something in the middle and typically located strategically close to infrastructure- sewerage, transportation, public transportation in particular, parks, open spaces- all put together in a designed entity, it’s the nexus of the much lauded Transit Oriented Development idea…but that is a critical thing that’s currently missing”.

Garth believes that urban development agencies could be capable of larger integrated design linked to all infrastructure and can make development happen very quickly. He is excited about Waterfront Auckland and the proposed Auckland development company.

“I would like to see an agency take over the responsibility of development of some pivotal hard to do areas, obviously it would have to have the resource to buy up chunks of town centres and convert them into more intensified living environments.”