Aiming for a Better Public Realm

Story by Jeremy Young

Faculty of Architecture and Design, 2018

Aiming for a Better Public Realm

You don’t have to look very far to find critical views on the appearances of buildings and cities. When talking about New Zealand in the Architectural Review magazine, Layla Dawson expressed surprise that Auckland appeared as an unplanned jumble of high-rise blocks. Why, she asked, would the public put up with such poor architecture?

Dr Morten Gjerde is the head of the School of Architecture at Victoria University of Wellington and a senior lecturer in urban design. His research has been working to establish whether design controls do lead to a more well-liked city, or whether they are merely obstacles for those wanting to build.

The appearance of a building and the surrounding area can have a very real influence over property values, directly affecting the well-being of those who own the property or use it. Our daily choices usually contain at least some consideration towards aesthetics in what we do. These aesthetic considerations extend to where we live, what house to buy, or even what street to walk down. Like most cities, Wellington has strict design rules and regulatory planning. The Wellington City Council’s district plan aims to “encourage positive growth that promotes the City’s comparative advantages” and acknowledges that the quality of the public realm is linked to the buildings and structures that are built. Experts found that in an attempt to balance the different desires for a building the design review process should address:

1) A clearly articulated and demonstrable public interest.

2) Demonstrable links to the stated intent.

3) Application early in the design or decision process.

4) Encouraging a variety of acceptable decisions.

Expert vs Public Opinion

Gjerde’s research has found that studies show a positive correlation between the involvement of an architect and a successful design outcome. Similarly, there appears to be a strong correlation between the absence of a skilled professional and a poor design outcome. While this may seem obvious, what these studies fail to look at is what is considered a ‘successful design outcome’. Indeed, nearly all design review studies do not take public opinion into consideration and instead are the exclusive domain of architects and experts. There is little evidence to suggest that such experts speak on behalf of the wider population.

For example, the public highly valued façade details and overall shapes, while experts found coherency with the surrounding buildings to be more important. Furthermore, a disparity between designers and the public is found when looking at things such as inner-city small industrial buildings. The general public felt that the older buildings created a link to the past and variety within a street, while experts considered older industrial buildings to be unwanted remnants and barriers to further development of new character.

Does Design Control make Cities more Well-Liked?

The aims of Wellington’s design review are commendable, however Gjerde’s research shows that the process may be flawed. The process may work to create a more cohesive and inviting city, however it bases these decisions on the opinions of experts rather than the general public. It focuses on what experts consider important, rather than asking what the public consider a likeable city to be. Gjerde’s findings highlight this omission and create an opportunity for further study in this area to ensure a more equal representation of ideas.

Public Opinions on Wellington

  • <p>The least liked building by experts. </p>
  • <p>The public dislikes large blank side walls. </p>
  • <p>This building had the highest public support on its entire street. </p>
  • <p>The public likes added details on street fronts.</p>
  • <p>The relationship between these two buildings is seamless and was well-liked by the survey respondents. </p>
  • <p>This building for a metal recycling business is typical of the older buildings in College Street. </p>

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