Dory Reeves: Open up hidden public places in Auckland towers

05 September 2016

The following opinion piece from Professor Dory Reeves was recently featured in the New Zealand Herald. The full report is available below. 

Raise your hand if you knew there was a central city public rooftop garden with 360-degree views of Auckland freely available for your use.

If your hand is up, you are probably one of the few people who know this space exists.

Yet it does and has been there for some time. This rooftop garden at 56 Wakefield St, complete with urban beehives, was created for public use as part of the council's bonus floor area scheme.

For those who don't know, this scheme essentially allows developers to exceed permitted floor areas if they provide a public space such as a thoroughfare or a plaza. This provision exists in many international cities and was first adopted by Auckland in the 1970s.

Council authorities hoped that the provision would encourage developers to deliver safe, equitable, attractive, diverse, healthy and sociable inner-city environments.

But researchers, journalists and an Auckland city centre community group, Splice, have expressed concerns about whether these spaces are actually achieving these goals.

Recently a group of postgraduate urban planning students from the University of Auckland's School of Architecture and Planning undertook an assessment of bonus floor spaces in Auckland in collaboration with Splice and the community matters arm of the Department of Internal Affairs. Their findings indicated the scheme urgently needs improvement.

Their recent report, An Assessment of Bonus Floor Spaces in Auckland, reviewed dozens of public spaces provided under the scheme, including Wakefield St's rooftop garden. Through site visits, using both the safety audit toolkit commonly used by the Auckland Council and the project for public spaces - the What Makes a Successful Place? checklist - the students provided an independent study of 30 spaces.

Most were found to be exclusive and often unusable due to restricted entry hours, with cold and unwelcoming furnishings, heavy surveillance, and inadequate signage to indicate they were public spaces.

International research of similar schemes mirrors the groups' findings.

While the future of Auckland continues to be hotly debated, with concerns over how to best increase urban density, it is vital that initiatives that encourage developers to include public areas in their projects are actually achieving their objectives.

According to the assessment of the bonus floor area scheme by the postgraduate students, they are not. A major problem is the lack of a comprehensive and ongoing review of these spaces by local authorities.

Yet we constantly hear that private business will deliver what we want and need guided by the Auckland Unitary Plan. If the bonus floor area scheme is an example of allowing developers to decide what the public most want and need I suggest this argument is flawed.

Take our example of the hidden garden in Wakefield St. There are no visible signs at ground level to indicate that there is a public space on the rooftop and even if you knew it was there, it is accessible only during weekdays between certain hours.

There is limited disabled access as well as inadequate seating, shade or shelter. So while the space has enormous potential, it needs to be better maintained, have its facilities upgraded and importantly, the public needs to know it exists.

This is just one example out of many assessed in the report.

As we plan Auckland's intensification and increase apartment-style living one crucial aspect must be the provision of high-quality public spaces for all communities.

As Aucklanders, we should question how our local body will oversee their provision. This is vital as research strongly suggests that increasing density can negatively impact on mental, social and physical wellbeing, unless we ensure quality public spaces are provided.

The bonus floor area scheme should be audited to ensure proper compliance, essentially that the areas created under the scheme are well-designed and accessible to all, at all times, and, most importantly, the public should know where they are. After all, we have a right to use them.

We should ensure that future bonus floor spaces meet the needs of the growing number of inner city residents. Picnic on the roof anyone?