What Makes Cities Tick?

A few months back I saw an interesting thread of tweets written by Kent Lundberg, an urban designer who has been a big part of the revival of the Auckland city centre in recent years.

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I think it’s a neat wee summary of what makes city centres tick. I took 3 points out of this:

  1. Cars may have their place, but it isn’t moving large volumes of people to/from and around constrained city centres.
  2. City centres are extemely attractive to certain types of businesses. And that attractiveness is based on proximity to clients, customers, and other workers. Not accessibility by car.
  3. It’s also based on being central to a large base of resident workers.

Thinking about how Christchurch compares to Auckland on these 3 points.

  1. Our public transport usage is very low. If we want to allow our city centre to succeed and grow, and given that there’s basically no more room for any more cars on the roads or parking areas, we need to allow growth by providing useful, attractive alternatives – public transport, walking and cycling.
  2. I work at an engineering consultancy. After the earthquakes all the engineering consultancies were forced out of the central city. One thing I’ve found interesting is that, as the rebuild has progressed, almost every engineering consultancy in Christchurch has gravitated back to the city centre. And not just vaguely central, many have positioned themselves extremely close to the big clients: Council and Government organisations. For example Jacobs, one of the largest engineering firms in the world, shifted in literally next door to Christchurch City Council. Aurecon quickly moved in across the road, Tonkin and Taylor are one street over, as are Holmes, Octa and Structex. Beca have moved back into the heart of Colombo Street… Now these are all very savvy, profitable companies. If they are shifting back into the central city it’s not just for some vague feel-good factor – it’s because they know the value of being there. It’s a tangible demonstration of the agglomeration benefits that our city centre offers. We’ve already seen lots of businesses voluntarily shift back already. This will continue as long as we don’t put unnecessary obstacles in their way, and make sure they have access to the workers they need. We have around 35,000 workers in the central city now, this is predicted to be around 75,000 by 2048. This is smaller than Auckland but still plenty for a strong agglomeration economy.
  3. We only have about 7,000 central city residents, compared to Auckland’s 65,000. We desperately need more. Again, these will come if we stop putting obstacles in their way, and make sure we provide good access for them to move around the central city.

My over-riding impression of Cantabrians is that they don’t have a great understanding of what makes cities tick. I know people who see the central city as little more than somewhere they can go shopping when they want an alternative to their suburban mall, or a place to visit occasionally to have a nice meal out. The city centre is these things, but it is so much more. It is the region’s most critical place of business, the engine room that guides the whole Canterbury economy. If our engine room is horribly inefficient then that’s going to impact us all, even people who seldom go there. And likewise, if we can make it work more efficiently then that doesn’t only benefit CBD workers, it benefits all of us.

So for a more successful city, we need to make it easier for large volumes of people to get to and from the city centre, and to move around once they’re there. We need to make it easier for businesses to operate centrally, and we need to allow more people to live centrally. Auckland is paving the way for us to follow, with their public transport resurgence, economic resurgence and rapidly growing central city population.

To me, the question is not “will we follow Auckland’s lead”, it is “how many years will we waste before we eventually follow Auckland’s lead?”

2 thoughts on “What Makes Cities Tick?

  1. Great post. I can’t think of a single central city area in the world that was greatly enhanced as a space (including economically) by improving (or entrenching) accessibility tailored predominantly to cars over other modes. Most cities, big and small, that have developed better pedestrian spaces, improved public transport significantly, and tempered vehicle access have seen an influx of business (both office and retail), residents and visitors.

    The idea that entrenching or improving car access to the city centre will make for a great city is kind of like a Pack n Save wanting to improve its offering by knocking down the supermarket building to expand the car park. It simply makes no sense.


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