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  • Jo Wills

Urban design, is it rocket science?

Prior to attending an urban design presentation by a person with the name Ludo, my expectations for something pretty special were high. I was anticipating something provocative, something leading edge and something worthy of such an interesting name like Ludo. I wasn’t disappointed.

The presentation was hosted by Project Tauranga, a unique programme that encourages organisations to invest in innovative and exciting projects that benefit the community. Sustainability Options are Project Tauranga Partners and are wholeheartedly committed to the purpose of the programme through our own actions and projects as well as contributing to others.

Ludo started the presentation by sharing knowledge and experiences of how to invigorate inner city retail sectors. To be honest my heart sunk as I thought about how much I didn’t want to sit there for an hour to hear how to encourage consumerism. That’s not high on my list of priorities.

However it didn’t take long before he moved into the main purpose of his presentation which (in my words) was how to create a city that people wanted to be a part of, contribute to and be proud of and one that recognised community at its core. If those things are achieved then I think a natural outcome would be that retail, restaurants and cafes etc. would thrive anyway. (Ludo showed numerous examples of that being exactly the case).

Ludo had my full attention, and from the nods and comments coming from those close by me in the room, everyone was completely engaged in his message.

If we build a city that gives priority to cars and parking, we will get a city that is made up of cars and parking. This is largely what we have in Tauranga (and without question many other towns and cities in NZ). It might be a generalisation but I think many would agree this doesn’t create much of a sense of place and isn’t somewhere many chose to spend their time on either side of having to ‘come into town’ to buy an item.

Ludo’s message was largely that more than just a shift in thinking is required to create a city where its people become part of the energy of the place. A shift in believing in what’s possible is required. And yes, the most difficult part, a shift in behaviour is required.

Throughout Ludo’s presentation and all of the nodding and murmuring of supportive comments when he showed pictures of inner city roads being closed to traffic and people engaging in active transport such as cycling and walking as modes of transport I thought to myself…I hope everyone realises they have to be a part of this change. There is a fantastic phrase (which I don’t have clue who to credit it to) ‘you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic’. I love that phrase and remind myself of it every time I make the decision to drive instead of ride my bike.

But it’s not all about cycling and closing streets to cars. The spaces (including roads) themselves need to be designed well, and clearly Ludo is extremely well qualified in this area, he showed many inspiring examples of beautiful inner city spaces just oozing with people. Many of these examples were in places like New York, Bogota and Melbourne…so nothing like Tauranga at all. However, they were all faced with the same issues, dying city centres, congestion, pollution, retail sales struggling, not to mention the social challenges that come with cities that don’t work for the people who inhabit them.

So Ludo shared another really compelling message for Tauranga. Yes Tauranga is unique, just like every other city or location in the world. So instead of using that excuse to not do something, he challenged us to look at these examples and realise that if a city of over 8 million (New York) can alter its inner city space to be people friendly, close streets, support active transport and support a change of behaviour that its people embraced, then what is the real reason a city of 117, 000 (Tauranga) can’t also do something? Because its not that we are so unique its impossible for us to take any direction from other equally unique cities.

Ludo mentioned something along the lines of ‘just get on and do it’.

Since Ludo’s presentation I have also watched a TEDx Talk with a strikingly similar message. Gil Penalosa’s presentation entitled ‘creating 8-80 cities, from thinking to doing’ is well worth watching. Gil uses some of the same examples as Ludo, and the key take home message is if a city can be designed to suit people ages 8-80, it will pretty much suit everyone in between. This is a hugely significant consideration because of Tauranga’s aging population. It's also hugely significant because accessibility means different things to different people, and enabling all members of the community to use and enjoy the same spaces should be priority.

What both Ludo and Gil are saying is the young and old and those with mobility needs are the target markets urban designers should be strongly considering. Ludo showed a really powerful image of 2 little kids, probably around the ages of 8 – 11, cycling, without an adult on inner city Auckland streets, and they were by all accounts, safe. They were on a cycle path that was well designed and didn’t require navy seals training to navigate. It was designed for cycling to be safe for all ages.

Ludo and Gil spoke a lot about having a vision of what we want from our city. ‘Safe’ always features high for a city vision. Safe cities have people about, all the time, at 10am, 3pm, 8pm, 11pm. This doesn’t have to mean people out drinking at 11am, creating vibrant city centres doesn’t have to revolve around bars and pubs. Ludo shared another example of the transformation that took place on the Auckland waterfront at Wynyard Quarter when they revitalised it from an industrial place to a space people wanted to be. He said people play basketball under lights till early hours of the morning, and this is in the same development that community gardens were established.

Ludo’s approach of just get on and do it appeals to me. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the country, and a business as usual approach to how we do stuff is really starting to take its toll. Our communities and city spaces are dominated by cars. Cycling is considered a dare devil activity. Accessibility is often as after-thought. Concrete is poured over green space. More and more money is invested in roading and parking and out of public transport and our communities are disconnected from each other.

However, one of the most fantastic things I took from Ludo’s presentation was that it’s not rocket science to address these things. Many of the key points he (and Gil) communicated (active & safe transport, closing streets, shared community spaces, accessibility, well designed green spaces, less cars, more people) are all basic principles that many of us already understand and share as part of a vision for Tauranga.

There are so many fantastically talented and passionate people in this city that realising some of these dreams are well within our reach. We are incredibly unique, just like New York, or Auckland, so we have many beautiful examples of what can be achieved if we want to, maybe with tweak here or there just to make it our own. So let’s stop using the ‘but we’re different’ response as a solution to not doing anything.

Finally, big ups to Project Tauranga for bringing Ludo’s message to Tauranga, sometimes a good shake up from the outside is just what’s needed to get the people on the inside thinking but more importantly, doing. So…let’s just do it!

#urbandesign #cycling #activetransport #closedstreets #greenspaces #communityspaces

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