People are leaving our post-Covid cities – and we must respond

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Mat Brown is Principal Architect at Warren and Mahoney, and co-host of 76 Small Rooms, a podcast about architecture in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

OPINION: They say, in comedy, timing is everything. The same could be said of town planning. Do it right and everyone laughs, do it wrong and it’s just a bad joke.

As we move toward the end of this pandemic and look to how our cities might function in a post-Covid world, you could be forgiven for thinking they were the result of a night at the Oscars.

New Zealand’s late entry into the Western world has shaped our built environment in a special way. Our post-European cities did not have much time to find their bearings before the car promised local independence.

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The Civic had just opened in Auckland in 1929, and the city’s population was over 200,000 when Le Corbusier dreamed of the City of tomorrow, a collection of distant places interconnected by roads.

And that’s how it all started. Our cities have expanded, geography being the only constraint. Auckland suffered the most, blessed with flat land, many coastlines and a hospitable climate.

People-centric pockets have found a foothold, focused on commerce and streetcars, but the car has quickly become the determinant of our cities. Unlike those pre-car European cities we used to visit, we never got the chance to design for people.

The past two years have changed the way we think about how people live in our cities. For those who can, the workplace has become decentralized, with work and home becoming a blur. We have found working from home to be comfortable, convenient and flexible. So much so that even if the public health risk fades, we hesitate to return to the office. This hesitation is the manifestation of the failures of our cities.

Working from home means we don’t have to drive to work. Parents can pick up the kids from school or at least be there when they get home. Young people find their parties and can really spend time with the people they live with. We can spend our days near the park, cafe, or store we chose to be near when we chose where to live.

The past two years have changed the way we think about how people live in our cities.

David White / Stuff

The past two years have changed the way we think about how people live in our cities.

The benefits of working from home are shaping our behavior and the homes of the future. They shape the architects brief, adding just a bit of raw floor space to each apartment. There’s even an argument that working from home might entitle you to a bit more pay. A subsidy, if you wish, to use your own electricity and internet. A small supplement to cover the cost of renting or buying this house with the office area, instead of the one without.

As we find ways to adapt to this new way of life, it’s worth thinking about, what if it persists? And more interesting, what if it was better? What if the lure of working from home outweighs the benefits we find at the end of the highway?

It’s no surprise that Auckland is losing its population. Workplace mobility has changed people’s priorities. People can leave, so they are. It’s not good for any place, and we should be concerned.

Cities have traditionally responded well to people’s needs. We are social creatures. People like to be around people, and our cities provide that opportunity. But our virtual environment has loosened the city’s monopoly. People find they can be satisfied regardless of location. Our cities must react.

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.

Fortunately, in this case, New Zealand has a chance to find the right moment. This rebalancing of people and places is happening just as our cities are reinventing themselves. The Auckland Unit Plan, along with the National Policy Statement on Urban Development and the Housing Supply Bill are all great levers, operated almost simultaneously. If we seize the opportunity they collectively represent, we have a real chance of avoiding a slap in the face.

A well-known commercial building is being transformed into a residential area on Carlton Gore Road in Auckland, designed by Warren and Mahoney.

Image courtesy of LCO Estate/provided

A well-known commercial building is being transformed into a residential area on Carlton Gore Road in Auckland, designed by Warren and Mahoney.

The foundations for this change have been laid in Auckland, with the results of the unitary plan beginning to emerge. Rather than an amalgamation of uses inside your home, we see workplaces close to our homes and homes closer to where people work.

The emerging trend of converting commercial offices into apartments is shifting one use to another, bringing people to the city. The transport lanes support mixed-use developments on the outskirts of the city, injecting commercial uses and amenities into the suburbs, while supporting larger connectivity goals by supporting public transport.

These projects do not happen by chance. For the outcome to be successful, for our cities to become the type of place people want to live, each project must play its part. It must know its place in the big project and contribute to the type of city that we have begun to imagine.

By seizing the opportunities presented by regulatory changes, we can begin to adapt our cities to become livable and attractive places for everyone.

We are seeing the emergence of a stronger social, economic and environmental vision of how we should live in New Zealand. These ideas are not new. In fact, these are very old ideas. It’s just that it’s taken the past two years of disruption and the resulting rebalancing to create an opportunity for change.

It is now.

Warren and Mahoney is the architecture firm that designed The Domain Residences, apartments created from a former commercial building near the Auckland Domain.

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