Why doesn’t government have a Chief Design Advisor?

This article appeared in Stuff on 12th July 2022 https://www.stuff.co.nz/opinion/129245701/finding-a-way-through-our-urban-housing-dilemma

OPINION: Our councils are under pressure to respond to the requirements of the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2021, the law change designed to increase housing supply by allowing higher housing density in key urban areas. 

As debate within the Auckland Council has demonstrated, this issue has led to polarised views. Some are demanding new compact homes in accessible locations, and others fear that this means the destruction of character villas with their much-loved aesthetic. What all sides know is that we cannot wish well-designed neighbourhoods, buildings and public places into existence. They cannot be “a nice to have if you can afford it”; rather, they are fundamental to creating a city with a distinctive identity and one that is worth living in.

So why aren’t the decision makers getting the urban design advice they so badly need to inform this debate? 

In Germany, they consider the impact of building and place-making so important to society that they have a word for it: BauKultur.

The pressure for more housing intensification in cities such as Auckland poses challenges around preserving the liveability of those cities.
DAVID WHITE/STUFFThe pressure for more housing intensification in cities such as Auckland poses challenges around preserving the liveability of those cities.

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 New Zealand, 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 wellbeing of people and allow our places to thrive.

In the late 1990s, the British Labour government set up the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). When I worked there its purpose was, “to inject architecture and design into the lifeblood of the nation”. This was the UK government’s attempt at BauKultur. For more than a decade it succeeded.

A national design agency for Aotearoa is long overdue. The government has a chief science adviser with her own department (the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser). Why not a chief design adviser 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, traffic congestion, urban sprawl, housing inequality, wasted resources, and councils making poor decisions about growing cities. The UK has a government architect – someone who I worked with at CABE. The chief planner for the UK is also an alumni of CABE, with considerable urban design experience.

The board of the UK’s National 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.

At a city level there are other opportunities to champion good design. Many cities have a city architect, like Sydney and Melbourne, who bring design leadership to major civic projects and urban developments. London has a panel of design advocates, independent experts who help the mayor shape good growth outcomes. Auckland had a design champion supported by the Auckland Design Office.

As a minimum, statutory design standards could make a difference to design quality in the built environment. Imagine how much more optimistic and sensible the current conversations about where houses should go would be if there was stronger design leadership from government and councils. Less about where, and more about what.

There are many models, but New Zealand should be developing its own and drawing on the unique culture that exists here. The government must start recognising that good design is its responsibility, crucial to meeting its wellbeing targets and to implementing the Resource Management Act.

Devolving responsibility for design to local government will not be enough. The axing of the Auckland Design Office, shows how fragile this can be. Tasking a 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 neighbourhoods worth living in.