It’s time for an Aotearoa Design Office

Government is pulling all the levers to get more housing built, but in the rush will we create environments worth living in?

In Germany they consider the impact of building and place making so important to society that they have a word for it: BauKultur. Their Federal Government plays a central and leading role in BauKultur, the production of urban environments that are worth living in. This covers all aspects of the production of the built environment, including planning, building, conservation and construction.

Their website says, ‘The current challenge is to build housing quickly which is not only affordable, but also of good quality. This is where Baukultur plays a key role. Germany needs decent housing in attractive neighbourhoods where people enjoy living and getting together. Despite the current housing policy challenges, we must not lose sight of the goal of balanced and sustainable urban development with an emphasis on high-quality Baukultur.’

This requirement is also needed in NZ and not only regarding housing but infrastructure, too. We have long needed a comprehensive approach to understanding the value of good design in creating urban environments that support the well-being of people and allow our places to thrive.

The recent release of the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill is being debated at Select Committee Hearings this week. It’s been heavily criticised by planners, designers, the public and property developers. Yes to more housing to be enabled, but not at any cost. Its draft content treats design as nice to have if you can afford an architect, but not a fundamental creation that’s of societal value. It treats design as a subjective matter best left to subjective arguments of taste. But the reaction from most of those who submit evidence, including non-designers, has been all about how good design enables good city form.

In the late 1990s, the British Labour government set up the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). Its purpose was, ‘To inject architecture and design into the lifeblood of the nation’. This was the UK government’s attempt at BauKultur. For a decade it succeeded. Its demise was the result of shortsighted budget cuts – a short term save that ended up in a more expensive long term spend – and was regretted even by the minister who implemented the change. But CABE’s influence has remained through a range of agencies and organisations and through the people who worked there and continue to champion good design.

A national design agency for Aotearoa is long overdue. The government has a Chief Science Advisor with her own department (the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor). Why not a Chief Design Advisor and a Prime Minister’s Aotearoa Design Office (ADO)? The quality of the built environment impacts so much of our daily lives that it warrants attention and investment. We can see what happens when it goes awry: leaky homes, climate degradation, urban sprawl, inequality, wasted resources. The UK has just now appointed the next Government Architect – unsurprisingly, someone who I worked with at CABE.  The Chief Planner for the UK is also an Alumni of CABE.

The board of the UK’s Infrastructure Commission has an architect sitting on it. She also heads up the Design Commission, which sits alongside the Infrastructure Commission. This allows for cohesive thinking, streamlining of interests, avoiding costs and delays.

New Zealand is also embarking on a massive spend on infrastructure yet there’s no urban designer or architect on the board of our Infrastructure Commission, let alone a design agency.  These projects will be around for decades so they’d better be well-designed. They are also expensive. The amount of money that will be saved over the life of these projects through better design decisions at the start will far outweigh any immediate costs.

There are many other models but New Zealand should be developing its own and drawing on the unique culture that exists here. Government must start recognising that good design is its responsibility and is crucial to meeting its well-being targets. Tasking this new agency with developing national design standards to accompany its reforms would be a good start. Only when we have this to inform a coherent and comprehensive approach to the design of our towns and cities will we be creating environments worth living in.