Is Auckland ugly? Top urban design and planning experts weigh in

Auckland - city of sails, the Sky Tower, heritage buildings, mountains and west coast beaches. Also the city of motorways, car parks and cheap apartment buildings.

No one denies Auckland's outdoors are magnificent, but what about the city itself? Newshub went to local experts to get their opinions of the city they live in. Is Auckland ugly, and if so, how did we get here? And is it too late to save it?

Urban designer and planning expert Ludo Campbell-Reid is the design champion and general manager of the Auckland Design Office - and he's bursting with enthusiasm and ideas to improve the city.

"Ugly or beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he told Newshub.

"The city's beauty is its natural environment: the Waitakeres, the Waitemata, the Hunuas... [but] if you think about Auckland for instance, we haven't always talked about the urban city being beautiful."

Sunrise over Auckland.
Sunrise over Auckland. Photo credit: Amanda Miller / Supplied

Dr Bill McKay, professor of architecture and planning at the University of Auckland, agrees beauty is a personal opinion - but says the city is "utterly underwhelming" in terms of architecture and urban design.

Why does Auckland look the way it does?


Rod Marler, director of design and place at Panuku Development Auckland, says Auckland's look evolved due to a history of commercial use combined with planning decisions around housing and transport.

"Auckland is a harbour city developed around its wharves, and the transportation of goods to and from its wharves and warehouses. Settlement occurred on the ridges surrounding the town, above the natural waterways, which became waste corridors," he told Newshub.

"Later in the city's evolution, critical infrastructure decisions shaped the city's growth and development. Motorways put paid to the 'green corridor' proposed for Auckland's valleys and gullies in the first half of the 20th century.

"Suburban sprawl was encouraged to address the housing supply needs of the 1950s and 1960s, rather than following a strategy of more intense development and a more compact city form supported by public transport infrastructure, for example 'Robbie's Rail' proposed in the 1960s."

Auckland in its early stages of development.
Auckland in its early stages of development. Photo credit: Auckland Library

McKay says the problem was an "ad-hoc attitude to planning" by city authorities. 

"We've just had a 'make it up as we go' attitude," he says.

Things got worse in the next few decades. McKay says the council began approving "badly designed" buildings.

"In the 80s we had the stock market boom and people started making money out of money," he told Newshub.

"The buildings were just a way of making money, they were there for developers to make money. There was no civic spirit."

Auckland's towers.
Auckland's towers. Photo credit: Getty

Campbell-Reid agrees that the 1980s were a bad time for design.

"The 80s were really bad for Auckland, a lot of the old heritage building that you see only in pictures today were removed and replaced with modern glitzy towers. But those towers have almost already become outdated," he says.

"And at the time the city council didn't have the rules and the levers and the control mechanisms to protect against poor quality development."

What does Auckland look like in the future?


Marler says Auckland is now moving away from the "car-based model" and its urban designers are returning to the "people-centred urban form" that existed before the 1950s.

As part of this plan, Campbell-Reid is overseeing the redevelopment of Auckland, including around Britomart, central city streets and the waterfront.

The Wynyard Quarter redevelopment.
The Wynyard Quarter redevelopment. Photo credit: Auckland Council / Supplied

"What we've got to do is start to convert our streets into play-places, recreational spaces, hard spaces but also soft," he told Newshub.

"The waterfront, Wynyard Point is going to be a large park system, so we understand there's a need, absolutely, and we are building a city which is recognising that."

Marler says regenerating Auckland's urban areas will help create social, economic, cultural and tourism benefits.

"Good design brings joy to people's lives and makes for a liveable city," he says.

"It connects people and builds strong neighbourhoods and communities and creates a positive future for our youth."

Campbell-Reid says his focus is on increasing human-friendly spaces to make a "more inclusive" city. This isn't just good for people, he says, it's good for businesses who get a massive increase in foot-traffic.

Elliot Street before and after its redevelopment.
Elliot Street before and after its redevelopment. Photo credit: Auckland Council / Supplied

"With the good quality urban design, you also bring in new customers, you bring in new business opportunities, and more people can access these areas, so the focus on pedestrianizing spaces comes around the needs of humans," Campbell-Reid says.

"The idea of cities that are vibrant and successful like Melbourne, Vancouver, Toronto, New York, London, Paris, are cities where people are the most important, where the car is not king, where the human, where the pedestrian, rules."

Campbell-Reid says the city is now "changing dramatically", with more cranes on Auckland's skyline than any city in the whole of the United States.

"Change is inevitable, and do we want to keep Auckland as it was before, or do we want Auckland to grow into the future?"


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