In the second episode of The Good Citizen Jeremy Hansen talks to Henry Crothers about having the bravery to transform our urban landscapes.
“We need to stop chickening out.”
Landscape architect and urban designer Henry Crothers is playing a guiding role in the creation of many of the best bits of New Zealand towns and cities, but he thinks it’s time for more bravery when it comes to the reinvention of the places we share. He’s been instrumental in the design of much-lauded projects including Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter, Westhaven Promenade and Te Ara i Whiti (the pink cycle path). Now his firm, LandLAB, is immersed in the rehabilitation of central Christchurch, as well as new master plans for Tauranga and Queenstown. A little more courage, he says, could change these places from good to great.
Many of his projects share a common theme: they’re about creating places for people, not cars. In fact, much of his work could be described as undoing decades of damage overzealous traffic engineers have done to the places we live in. But despite the magnitude of the changes cities like Auckland are facing, car users still threaten to revolt if street side car parks are repurposed or cycle lanes claim their rightful place on our roads, forcing Crothers into the role of negotiator and salesperson for a better, more people-centric world.
This isn’t an easy job. Crothers says New Zealand’s understanding of the power of good urban design has expanded enormously since he started out, as have the review processes of the organisations who commission new projects. But getting the anti-change brigade to see the benefits of people-centric spaces still feels a lot harder than it should, with these groups continuing to have a disproportionate influence on decision makers.
Crothers says the more great projects we create, the easier these arguments will be to win. The fights over the decade-old revamp of Auckland’s Queen Street (a project Crothers also worked on), for example, have long been forgotten, replaced by a new consensus based on rapidly growing pedestrian counts and a flood of new retailers. Now, councillors are openly talking about permanently closing parts of Queen Street to cars.
A guiding principle of Crothers’ work is that he wants it to heighten awareness of the landscapes we live in. Cities and towns are remarkable for the way they eradicate connections to the land they occupy: we pave over everything, channel streams into underground pipes, and casually reclaim land from our harbours.
Crothers begins his design process by examining the ecology of the places in which he’s working in to establish a better connection with the environment. “Cities are a complex layering of the ecologies of nature, infrastructure, culture, commerce and community – an interconnected field,” he says. “Landscape can be the driver and ordering device of our new places, spaces and communities.”
On a large housing project plan in Auckland’s Glenn Innes, for example, he proposed putting the river first and daylighting the many tributaries that run through the site to the Tāmaki Estuary, and planting them so they act as natural filters for water on its way to the Waitematā. At the end of Auckland’s North Wharf and on Christchurch’s Avon River, he’s designed broad, generous steps that allow visitors to dip their toes in the water – a connection to the immediate environment that seems so logical that it’s almost astonishing to think about how difficult this was to achieve before. His work, in a sense, is about highlighting these simple pleasures in the hope of creating deeper connections with the places we live in.Listen