News & Insights

Harmonising Global Urban Design Trends with New Zealand's Unique Landscape

  • 2023 November

Having been lucky enough to travel to the annual Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat conference in Singapore in mid-October with a team from Precinct Properties and Warren and Mahoney presenting on Commercial Bay, it was interesting to witness first hand global trends in urban design and how these trends may relate to New Zealand.

Today, with 56 percent of the world’s population living in cities, and the trend continuing, there is a need for urban design that recognises the social and ecological responsibility of cities that provide more sustainable forms of urban land-use, housing, and transport.

Cities across the globe are facing similar challenges and opportunities in the realm of urban design. New Zealand, despite its unique geographical and cultural context, can draw valuable insights from the prevailing global urban design trends.

Below I delve into the key considerations and explore how New Zealand can adapt and apply these trends sensibly to its own urban landscape.

The Scale of Urban Design: Balancing Compactness and Sustainability

Achieving the balance between density and sustainability in a city is essential to creating environmentally friendly and liveable urban environments.

New Zealand's urban centres, such as Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, may not match the scale of global metropolises of New York or Tokyo. However, this distinction offers a remarkable opportunity. Smaller cities can be more agile in adopting sustainable practices. Prioritising compact and mixed-use developments can promote walkability, reduce traffic congestion, and foster reliance on efficient public transportation systems.

Key Global Urban Design Trends: Lessons for New Zealand

Several global urban design trends are worth noting:

1.  Sustainable and Green Urbanism:

Around the world, cities are embracing sustainability through green spaces, energy-efficient buildings, and eco-conscious transportation. The combination of more trees, less energy use and fewer emissions reduces urban temperatures, reduces or mitigates air pollution, and builds natural environmental resilience.

  • Singapore, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is leading the way for green spaces, with over 7 million trees (and another 1 million planned) covering almost 50 percent of its land area with greenery. Singapore also aims to have 85 percent of its inhabitants living within 400m of a park.

  • Vancouver, Canada has strict building codes and incentives for green construction, leading to a high number of energy-efficient buildings. They also offer programmes to support energy retrofits to encourage owners to make energy efficient upgrades. Green roofs, which feature native planting, are encouraged to improve insulation, reduce heat gain and lower energy consumption as well as promoting biodiversity in the city.

  • Oslo, Norway, is considered one of the leading sustainable cities with their green transportation, including electric buses, trams, and plentiful charging stations for electric vehicles. Over 60% of Oslo’s energy is provided by renewable sources, primarily hydropower. In addition, there are car free zones, and the city promotes walking and cycling.

New Zealand, renowned for its pristine landscapes, can emphasise these principles through sustainable design, adaptive re-use, renewable energy sources, and preservation of its natural beauty.

2.  Mixed-Use Developments:

The concept of mixed-use zoning is gaining traction globally. Mixed-use zoning creates dynamic neighbourhoods, blending residential, commercial, and retail spaces. This enables people to walk or cycle to more places, reducing the need for extensive infrastructure and transportation networks. Mixed-use developments also foster a greater sense of community and social interaction.

A popular interpretation of mixed-use zoning is the 15-minute city; an urban planning concept in which most daily necessities and services are within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Proposed in 2015 by Carlos Moreno, the concept has gained popularity for addressing climate change and improving social connectivity.  The Point, a demolished state prison in Utah, is a development transforming 600 acres of land into an eco-friendly city. The mixed-use design of the city is planned so that people will be able to walk more and drive less. It is aiming to be the first genuine 15-minute city in the US. While this is a design starting from scratch, many other cities around the world are endeavouring to rebuild their cities into walkable, bikeable and socially connected cities. Generally, smaller sized cities are better placed to transform to 15-minute cities than larger ones.

New Zealand could easily replicate a mixed-use, 15-minute zoning model to enhance vibrancy and economic resilience within its cities.

3.    Smart Cities:

Smart city initiatives are transforming urban life using technology to enhance infrastructure, services, and sustainability. Smart infrastructure can include smart girds for efficient energy distribution, digital services to offer online platforms to access services such as healthcare, sustainability initiatives for renewable energy, and use data analytics to improve decision making and optimise resource allocation.

Amsterdam is recognised as a leading smart city due to initiatives such as:

  • Their smart infrastructure, including sensors for monitoring air quality, traffic flow, and energy consumption, allows for real-time data collection and analysis.

  • Data and technology used to make informed decisions and enhance the efficiency of the city’s services, such as waste management and urban planning.

  • The City has invested in digital infrastructure to support current and future digital innovation, including free public Wi-Fi.

  • Citizens are engaged in decision making through digital platforms and open data initiatives, so they can help shape the future of the city.

  • Green initiatives such as energy-efficient street lighting, renewable energy sources and green rooftops help promote sustainability goals.

New Zealand can follow suit, leveraging innovation and data to improve transportation, energy efficiency, and overall quality of life. 

4.   Affordable Housing Solutions: 

Housing is a basic human need. However, the World Economic Forum has estimated that by 2025, 1.6 billion people will be affected by the global housing crisis. In a study of 200 cities globally, 90% were found to be unaffordable to live in.

Around the world, a range of housing solutions are being trialled and implemented to address the housing crisis. In India, a new building system that uses low-cost, prefabricated panels from waste material has been approved by the government, and in Africa, a joint venture is 3D printed houses and schools. In cities including New York, London, Paris and Melbourne, inclusionary zoning, where developers must include a percentage of affordable housing, has made housing more affordable and helped maintain a level of economic diversity in the cities.  Latin America’s biggest cities are seeing a boom in the construction of micro apartments, where the apartment is primarily for sleeping, and leisure time is spent in generous shared communal spaces.

New Zealand, like many regions, grapples with affordable housing challenges. By exploring innovative housing models, such as build to rent, adaptive re-use, micro-apartments, and inclusionary zoning, the country can address this pressing issue effectively.

Comparison of New Zealand Projects

To ensure that New Zealand remains competitive on the global stage, it's essential to evaluate existing projects against international benchmarks. This scrutiny can highlight areas for improvement in urban resilience, sustainable infrastructure, and community engagement. It is vital to consider the country's unique vulnerabilities to natural disasters and the adaptability of its infrastructure and building designs.

Learning and Application: A Local Approach to Global Ideas

The key to successfully incorporating global urban design trends into New Zealand's urban fabric lies in adaptation. By carefully tailoring these trends to its unique cultural, environmental, and social context, New Zealand can create cities that resonate with the values and needs of its inhabitants. Community engagement and participation in urban planning are paramount, ensuring that projects align with local aspirations.

Moreover, investing in public transportation, active transportation infrastructure, and green spaces can significantly reduce the country's reliance on cars and promote healthy, vibrant communities. Embracing green building materials and innovative construction techniques, like timber construction, can enhance sustainability while maximising natural light and ventilation in buildings.

In conclusion, New Zealand has an exceptional opportunity to merge global urban design trends with its distinct character. By embracing sustainability, mixed-use developments, smart city innovations, and affordable housing solutions, and adapting them to its unique landscape, New Zealand can create urban centres that not only stand as models of efficiency and liveability but also remain true to its cultural and environmental heritage.

About the author
Managing Director