Executive summary

Aim and approach

The Value of Urban Design aims to establish whether there is a persuasive case for urban design - the design of the buildings, places, spaces and networks (both public and private) that make up our towns and cities, and the ways people use them.

Is there value to be gained through good urban design? What kinds of value does it offer, and how can New Zealand's towns and cities benefit? The Value of Urban Design seeks to answer these questions by:

  • Examining a wide range of international and local documentary evidence about the range of benefits and costs associated with urban design. While there is relatively little quantitative evidence in this field, The Value of Urban Design focuses strongly on empirical evidence derived from robust scientific studies. It also takes account of the views and judgements of recognised experts in the field, but discounts anecdotal evidence. It does not attempt to provide a cost-benefit analysis of urban design.
  • Evaluating the merits of claims commonly made about the economic, social and environmental effects of urban design.
  • Clarifying the nature of urban design and what, realistically, it can deliver in the context of New Zealand's towns and cities.

The Value of Urban Design has been commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment (the Ministry), with the Wellington City Council and the Auckland Regional Council. It is one of several documents that support the Ministry's New Zealand Urban Design Protocol (March 2005).

It is intended to assist both the public and private sectors. Public agencies will find it helpful in formulating policy, setting development objectives and evaluating projects that affect the urban environment. It will also assist developers and property investors to gain an understanding of the less tangible costs and benefits of the urban developments they initiate.

Overall findings

Urban design involves many people including practitioners (architects, engineers, planners, landscape architects and many more), local and central government agencies, property developers and investors, community groups and the public. They have varying interests, perspectives and criteria by which they assess the merits of urban design activity.

Furthermore, many kinds of 'value' can be considered - economic, environmental, social or cultural; tangible or intangible. The benefits (and costs) of good urban design often accrue to the wider community; therefore, many stakeholders have an interest in what takes place at both the micro scale (street and building design) and the macro scale (eg, patterns of land use).

Urban design remains an art as much as a science, involving concepts that are sometimes elusive, such as character. It involves both public urban space and parts of the private domain, and concerns the urban environment at a range of scales. Urban design is also context-specific. There is relatively little robust evidence about New Zealand urban design initiatives. Overseas examples of successful (or poor) urban design initiatives may reflect conditions that do not exist in New Zealand. Caution has been exercised in drawing conclusions for New Zealand solely on the basis of overseas evidence.

Taking into account these constraints and based on the extensive evidence consulted, The Value of Urban Design reaches the following broad conclusions about the benefits urban design might offer in the New Zealand context:

  • Good urban design can offer significant benefits to the community; conversely, poor design can have significant adverse effects on the urban environment, society and economy.
  • While good urban design sometimes costs more upfront, this is not necessarily the case; moreover, long-term costs can be avoided.
  • Communities value the better quality of life that good urban design can deliver.
  • Urban design can affect people's ability and willingness to undertake physical exercise: good design can offer health benefits.
  • Urban design can help make towns and cities safer and more secure.
  • Urban design elements are interconnected: urban design is most effective when a number of elements come together (eg, mixed use, density and connectivity).

The value of specific urban design elements

In reaching these broad conclusions, The Value of Urban Design examined evidence relating to eight core elements of urban design. These elements - and the key economic, social and environmental findings for each - are summarised below.

Local character

Definition: the distinctive identity of a particular place that results from the interaction of many factors, including built form, people, activity and history.

Key findings: Urban design that respects and supports local character can:

  • attract highly skilled workers and high-tech businesses
  • help in the promotion and branding of cities and regions
  • potentially add a premium to the value of housing
  • reinforce a sense of identity among residents, and encourage them to help actively manage their neighbourhood
  • offer people meaningful choices between very distinctive places, whose differences they value
  • encourage the conservation and responsible use of non-renewable resources.

Connectivity

Definition: the physical conditions facilitating access within a region, city, town or neighbourhood.

Key findings: Well-connected cities, towns and neighbourhoods can:

  • enhance land values
  • make local shops and facilities more viable
  • enhance people's safety and security by encouraging surveillance
  • encourage more walking and cycling, leading to health benefits
  • reduce vehicle emissions through fewer cars being used for non-work trips.

Density

Definition: the concentration of population and activity in an urban area.

Key findings: Urban design that promotes a higher density of buildings and public spaces (in conjunction with other conditions, such as mixed use, good building design and adequate open space) can:

  • deliver savings on land, infrastructure and energy
  • reduce the economic costs associated with time spent travelling
  • help concentrate knowledge and innovative activity in the core of the city
  • promote social connectedness and vitality
  • help encourage greater physical activity, with consequent health benefits
  • help conserve green spaces, in conjunction with certain kinds of urban development
  • reduce run-off from vehicles to water, and overall emissions to air/atmosphere (although air emissions may be more locally concentrated).

Mixed use

Definition: where a variety of different living and working activities are in close proximity within a neighbourhood.

Key findings: Urban design that supports mixed-use neighbourhoods (in conjunction with other factors including connectivity and a relatively high intensity of different uses) can:

  • offer people convenience, choices and opportunities, which lead to a sense of personal wellbeing
  • allow parking and transport infrastructure to be used more efficiently
  • lower household spending on transport
  • increase the viability of local shops and facilities
  • encourage walking and cycling - bringing health benefits, reducing the need to own a car and thus reducing emissions
  • increase personal safety
  • enhance social equity.

Adaptability

Definition: the capacity of urban buildings, neighbourhoods and spaces to adapt to changing needs.

Key findings: Urban design that addresses adaptability can:

  • extend the useful economic life of buildings and public spaces
  • increase the diversity of uses and users in a public space, and the length of time it is used for
  • encourage the conservation of non-renewable resources
  • contribute to economic success over time.

High quality public realm

Definition: all parts of the physical environment of towns and cities that the public has access to, and that form the setting for community and public life.

Key findings: An urban design approach that emphasises quality in the public realm can:

  • lead to enhanced urban economic performance by attracting more people and activities
  • encourage greater participation in community and cultural activities, and enhance civic pride and commitment to the community
  • increase the use of public space and support associated business
  • enhance personal safety.

Integrated decision-making

Definition: integration between and within organisations involved in urban policy, planning and implementation, as well as integration of the different urban design elements.

Key findings: An integrated approach to decision-making can:

  • increase opportunities for greater numbers of people to benefit from good urban design
  • allow urban design to produce the greatest possible benefits by working with complementary economic, social and environmental policies.

User participation

Definition: the public consultation process, and other forms of involvement in urban design projects, such as surveys or design workshops.

Key findings: User participation in urban design activity can:

  • improve the fit between design and user needs
  • allow more effective use of resources, by providing informed direction for decision-making
  • offer time or cost savings during the decision-making process, by encouraging increased user support for positive change
  • develop a greater sense of 'user ownership' over changes, and legitimise user interests
  • enhance a sense of community and local democracy.