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Design Review: Volume 5, Issue 3 (July-August 1953)

Rotten at the Core

page 60

Rotten at the Core

In his concluding article John Cox warns that the policy of expanding our towns endlessly outward is causing them to become

“Towns have sometimes been described as the physical expression of a nation's civilisation. The physical form of a town does in many ways reflect fairly accurately the social conditions of the people who live in it, their mode of life, their cultural achievement, their economic status, the kind of government they possess. The town reflects these characteristics because it arises out of them.”

Dr. Thomas Sharp, “Town Planning”

God forbid that visitors should judge us as Thomas Sharp suggests by the condition of our towns. If they did, the most charitable thing that could be said for us would be that we are blind, old fashioned and wealthy—so blind that we cannot see the disorder and ugliness around us—so old fashioned that we like to think that it is still the 19th century, and so wealthy that we can afford to behave as though it were.

If you think that this is an extravagant statement just take a look at your own town. To start with, consider the accommodation provided for community activities. Is there a civic centre or any grouping of public buildings? If you have a town hall, when was it built? What sort of distortions do its acoustics give to the National Orchestra? Where do the local drama societies rehearse and play? Is there a decently equipped theatre when the Old Vic Company or the ballet or Shakespeare come to town—or do they play in a 19th century building that is dusted up for the occasion? Where do you hold exhibitions? Are they accessible in lunch time or are they out of town like the Art Gallery in Wellington?

Is there any square or place that has been designed for outside gatherings of citizens, such as for the Coronation, or do you just cordon off some street from page 61
“frame the north-eastern side of Parliament grounds”

“frame the north-eastern side of Parliament grounds”

the traffic and hold them there? You should see where the State celebrations are held in Wellington, our capital city. The buildings that frame the north-eastern side of Parliament Grounds have to be seen to be believed. But at least there is a bit of space there. At the back of Parliament Buildings there is none. Here, on some of the most valuable land in New Zealand, is a collection of the most weird and wonderful buildings you ever saw. Corrugated iron sheds and army huts from the last war and the one before, converted houses, and the foundations of what was to have been the National Broadcasting buildings, full of water and a breeding ground for mosquitoes—until little fish were introduced. But be warned, you cannot see the aquarium: it is protected by barbed wire fencing.

If you live in Auckland, take a look at the surroundings of the Town Hall. Then take a quiet walk around the inner residential areas of the city—preferably on a Sunday morning when there is no traffic about to distract you. You will find slums—yes, real slums—up side streets within a stone's throw of the Town Hall. Then I suggest spending a half-hour or so in the gully behind Karangahape Road. Then turn back towards the Harbour from Ponsonby Road corner and investigate some lanes off Nelson Street and down into Freemans Bay past the gasometer. You can find many more areas equally degrading, but that should be enough. It's not pretty is it?

But you will find the same kind of living conditions all around Wellington from Mt. Victoria through Te Aro Flat and over to Aro Street. Then have a look at the accommodation that passes for flats around Wellington Terrace and Kelburn, Tinakori Road and Thorndon. Ask to see some of the “rooms with tray” and find out what rents are paid.

Do people live like this because they want to? Of course they don't. Why then do we have conditions like this? Because we as a nation have overlooked the fact that many people want to live close to town. Everyone is supposed to live in a suburban bungalow with a garden. It is somehow slightly immoral to live in a flat. Our housing policies, in fact, have always been framed on the assumption that every household consists of a father and mother and a family of young children. Little or no thought has been given to the actual proportion of such households in the total population. Housing surveys in the past have shown that at least one-third of the households consists of one or not more than two people. In a recent survey in Auckland the proportion was found to be even higher. This is not surprising. Think of the number of young childless couples you know. What about the parents whose children have grown up and left home—and the widows and widowers. Where do the single typists, clerks, shop assistants, factory workers (male and female) live? Could any of these cope with a suburban house and garden? Consider the plight of the University and Training College students and of all the clerks, cadets and trainees for professions who come from country districts to the cities. What provision do we make for them? Are they not entitled to expect that society will provide some reasonable accommodation for them?

The ordinary suburban family house is of no value to these various groups. They need a different type of living space and they want it nearer the city centre. Think of the savings in fares and travelling time, the convenience of access to libraries and clubs and entertainment, the pleasure for retired people of a short walk to the city. Many workers could go home to lunch as they do in country towns. Then if we build upwards we could have plenty of open ground around buildings and everyone could share the sun and the view. There would be room for bowling and croquet and tennis and for vegetable and flower plots—for those that want them. Community laundries could be well equipped with inside driers. We need not be at the mercy of the elements. We might even have some service flats as they have in other countries so that those who work all week would not have to spend their week-ends doing domestic chores. In a country where there are not enough people available to do the work of the nation we could encourage those who have no home ties to
“down into Freeman's Bay past the gasometers.”

“down into Freeman's Bay past the gasometers.”

page 62 continue with the skills for which they have been trained. Active older people could take up part-time work of social value instead of being made to feel that they are not wanted.

But this blind spot in our housing policies does not only affect the thousands who fall within the groups I have mentioned. It touches all our pockets. For, while the suburbs are spreading ever outwards the inner areas are rotting. From the point of view of municipal economics there is a double wastage. While public utility services—water, sewerage, electricity, telephones, etc., road and public transport, not to mention the postman, tradesmen and deliveries, the rubbish man and all the rest—are being extended uneconomically over thin and often straggling peripheral suburban development, the public utilities and transport services provided in the inner areas are far from fully used. From the point of view of rating it should be remembered, too, that the inner parts of the city contribute by far the greater proportion of the municipal rating revenue, area for area, even in their present dilapidated condition. And if they were redeveloped into decent modern higher density residential areas they would contribute even more to the municipal purse. For example, it is estimated that the rate revenue from a block of the existing Freeman's Bay slums, which is now measured in hundreds of pounds, would on redevelopment be multiplied into thousands.

In fact, the economic and social problems of our towns are so inter-related that they are one and the same thing. Unhealthy living and working conditions inevitably produce unhealthy municipal balance sheets. And you don't need to be a trained town planner to be able to diagnose the prevailing sickness in the local body politic as a disease of the heart. Our suburbs look healthy enough. No doubt much could be done to make them more convenient, but by and large they are reasonably pleasant to live in. It is the business and industrial centres and the inner residential areas that look so sick and no amount of paint and cosmetics can disguise it.

The plain fact is that our towns are at least half a century out of date. They were designed—if designed at all—for the day of the horse-drawn vehicle and its leisurely way of life, and no amount
“our inner residential areas”

“our inner residential areas”

of tinkering can provide satisfactorily for the new conditions of today. Nothing short of a comprehensive city-wide plan for redevelopment can possibly be effective. Piecemeal planning can be worse than no planning at all. For the city is an organism and no part of it can be considered except in relation to the rest. New traffic routes and bridges can make conditions worse if they plunge a stream of vehicles into a shopping street or a beach promenade or a quiet residential neighbourhood. Parking areas are wasted if they are not conveniently placed for the people who need them: they must be consciously designed as integral parts of the city plan.

The general practice of preventing the establishment of industries in residential zones is all very well but the city will not advance if residential building is not prevented in industrial zones. Industry must go somewhere and if we do not reserve those areas that are most suitable for it then we must allow it to go anywhere. Similarly if we want decent and convenient shopping centres then we must listen to the retailers’ plea for continuous shopping fronts and exclude industries, garages and workshops. Recreation areas must be well distributed and accessible to the various people who want to use them. If they are 30 miles out of town their use will be limited. An airport can be excellent from the point of view of aircraft operations and yet be unsuccessful if at the same time free traffic access from the centre and the rest of the town is not provided. It can also make conditions unbearable in its vicinity. Have you heard the latest jet planes?

New inventions, particularly in aviation, prompt people to say that change in this century is so rapid that plans are likely to be out of date before they can be carried into effect. So why plan—somehow it will all come right. Will it? Of course it will not. It is this counsel of inaction that has brought us to our present pass. It is this attitude that is accountable for the blighting of hundreds of acres in our city centres while the suburbs continue to spread ever outwards eating up our limited fertile soils. The land around Auckland and Wellington that produced milk and fresh vegetables 20 years ago is now under houses. Aready Wellington looks 50 miles to Otaki for its market gardens and now they, too, are under threat of urban encroachment. Are we going to continue to fritter away our resources like this? We know now that our population is increasing very rapidly—faster in fact than any other country in the world—there will be another million—so the statisticians tell us—in 25 to 30 years. Present population may even have doubled by the turn of the century. At the moment we have the highest standard of living in the world. This is made possible by New Zealand's remarkable productive capacity per head. But what happens when the population is doubled? On our present showing will be able even to feed ourselves, let alone export a surplus in exchange for those necessities New Zealand cannot produce?

Even as we delay the population is increasing at the rate of over 40,000—a new Lower Hutt—every year. Shall we continue to take land like that of the Hutt Valley out of production each year? Or can we convert the reproach of the present run-down condition of our cities into a challenge—a challenge to plan for redevelopment, to take positive steps to conserve our resources for the future? This could be the greatest adventure of our history.