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Mixed use town centres design guide - North Shore City Council

Fast facts

Publication title: Good Solutions Guide for Mixed Use Development in Town Centres

Subject: Design guide (non-statutory) concentrating on mixed use development, describing general principles and specific information with case studies in Parnell, Albany and Devonport, Auckland

Format: 75 page softcover book and web-based PDF with text, photos and illustrations

Published by: North Shore City Council, but has New Zealand-wide context.

Publication date: June 2005

Website link:

Case study researcher: Aaron Sills, Sills van Bohemen Architecture


The Good Solutions Guide for Mixed Use Development in Town Centres (the Mixed Use Guide) is part of a suite of non-statutory good solutions design guides developed by North Shore City Council (the Council). Two earlier non-statutory design guides were produced in 2003: Good Solutions Guide for Medium Density Housing and the Good Solutions Guide for Heritage Buildings; and in 2006, the Good Solutions Guide for Apartments was published.

A mixed use development is defined in the Mixed Use Guide as one that contains both residential and non-residential uses. It may be of any scale, from a single building to an entire precinct or area. The dissimilar uses of a mixed use development may be arranged either vertically or horizontally, or as a combination of the two.

Examples of horizontal and vertical mixed use developments.

The Mixed Use Guide promotes quality architectural and urban design as integrated components of a quality development. There is also a strong emphasis on issues around a development’s relationship with its context. Issues of compatibility (arrangement of uses, noise, relationship to the street and integration/streetscape character) are discussed in terms of both internal relationships (within the mixed use development) and those between the development and its context. Location of the development is seen as a key issue in the Mixed Use Guide; a site close to a town centre is optimal because of the non-residential uses that are already present in these situations. The Mixed Use Guide explains the mixed use development type as an instrument in designers’ repertoires, available to be used in specific circumstances in order to achieve particular urban design goals.

Mixed use developments in town centres can:

  • protect the commercial uses that provide employment – which might otherwise be lost to residential development

  • help to contain urban sprawl and allow occupants to be close to new or existing services and facilities

  • provide opportunities for living and working in close proximity, potentially reducing private vehicle use

  • retain 24-hour vibrancy – which might otherwise be lost if residential uses predominate

  • provide work-from-home accommodation that is well connected to commercial areas and their available services

  • allow people to live close to recreation, entertainment and services (reducing the amount of car use or providing further opportunities for those who do not drive)

  • provide low-maintenance accommodation opportunities

  • provide diversity and choice in accommodation type, style and size.

Mixed use developments in a town centre.

Rationale for developing the non-statutory Mixed Use Guide

Between 2002 and 2007, the Council’s planning and urban design staff identified several issues common across the urban and suburban town centres of North Shore City. These include:

  • an increasing demand for residential accommodation close to town centres, with developers attempting to satisfy this demand with building typologies that achieve higher density levels (mainly apartment and terraced developments)

  • a relative lack of experience amongst some developers and their designers of these larger-scale development types, and the particular issues involved in them

  • several poor examples of residential developments realised, with little regard for their negative effects on the surrounding public domain

  • a tendency towards stagnation of traditional main street commercial centres resulting from an increase in remote big-box retail areas and local shopping malls.

As a result, the Council decided to take a non-statutory educative approach to improve development quality. This was beneficial in developing awareness amongst designers, developers, council staff and decision makers. The Mixed Use Guide addresses the above issues by:

  • explaining the mixed use form of development and its importance as residential populations of town centres continue to grow

  • increasing awareness and understanding amongst designers, developers, council staff and decision makers of mixed use development and its potential to deal with urban design issues

  • raising awareness of the importance of quality design

  • stressing the importance of working with the best available design professionals when undertaking a mixed use development.

The production of the Mixed Use Guide may have contributed to an increased demand for higher quality developments. The Council needs to continue to train staff in the use and promotion of the Mixed Use Guide. Other statutory, rule-based methods are being developed.

Process of developing the design guide

The Mixed Use Guide was managed by the Council with Sarah Lindsay (Urban Design Advisor, North Shore City Council), the author. Research and analysis of similar design guides from New Zealand and overseas was undertaken. Input was sought from other local authorities and interested parties.

The main text concentrates on issues and solutions specific to mixed use development, such as site arrangement and capability, while also covering issues of context, sustainability, building form and pre- and post-design issues that are pertinent to other development forms. There is little else in New Zealand that is similar, other than the Auckland City Central Area and Wellington City design guides that are locality based rather than focused on a particular typology.

Four mixed use developments are used as case studies. They evaluate the design process, benefits of mixed use for that project and methods used to manage the consequences of adopting a mixed use typology. The case studies contain plans and photos of the developments and a table setting out basic project information, such as mix and distribution of uses, acoustic separation levels, street relationships, parking figures, waste management systems and applicable site bulk and location rules.

Quality graphic design of the Mixed Use Guide was considered vital, both because it should lead by example and because the audience values good design. There was also a desire for the document to be clear and non-threatening to non-designers, so the graphic style of diagrams has been kept informal and straightforward.

Example of a mixed use perimeter block.

An urban design consultant and urban designers from local authorities reviewed a draft of the text. It proved difficult to persuade private developers or architects to comment on the draft document.

There was widespread support from other local authorities (who also gave financial support) because the document was seen as a valuable resource for regulatory planners when evaluating and discussing projects with applicants, as well as a useful means of building the urban design capacity of council staff.

The first print run of the document totalled 2,500 copies, and was distributed to local authorities throughout New Zealand. The document was also placed on the Council website for public access.1 Council staff were informed of the availability of the document through in-house communication but there was no specific launch event. The Mixed Use Guide has also been used as support material for urban design continuing professional development workshops and this has aided in its promotion to potential users. In October 2007, the Mixed Use Guide was added to the Ministry for the Environment’s Urban Design CD.

Hemisphere apartments, Parnell, Auckland, is a commercial and residential mixed use development.

Evaluation of urban design principles


The Mixed Use Guide was produced to provide examples and design methods for mixed use developments to reduce the negative effects on town centres of developments that were exclusively residential.

The Mixed Use Guide emphasises the town centre as an optimal location for mixed use developments and describes how they can help maintain an active street frontage, while at the same time increasing the density, and therefore activity, of town centres through incorporation of residential units. The Mixed Use Guide also encourages mixed use developments to be designed to enhance the public domain, including the streets and street corners.

Important mixed use issues around the combination of dissimilar uses and the interface between uses in a development and its surrounding area are discussed.

Queens Parade, Devonport, Auckland uses angled bays to provide a strong vertical modulation to reduce the perceived length of the development.


The public’s attitude toward, and acceptance of, a development is commonly determined by the extent to which a new mixed use development is physically and aesthetically integrated into its context. The appearance of a new building should not only relate to the existing streetscape, but should enhance it (with developing areas there should be cognisance of the desired future character). The Mixed Use Guide advocates that mixed use developments must work with nearby buildings to create a consistent, yet varied, overall character. In existing town centres this may be achieved by taking cues from nearby older buildings and reinterpreting them in a contemporary manner.

381–397 Parnell Road, Parnell, Auckland adds to, and reinforces, the Parnell Road streetscape.


The Mixed Use Guide was developed to encourage further choice and diversity in urban design in the North Shore. The lack of choice in the past has created single-use, low-rise residential suburbs with long travelling distances to get to services and facilities.

The resurgence of mixed use developments in New Zealand has been attributed to changes in how people choose to live and work, including:

  • a desire to live nearer to one’s workplace

  • a rise in the number of people working from home

  • a preference for easy access to entertainment, recreation and services usually found in town centres

  • an increasing awareness that commuting by car exacerbates road congestion, creates pollution and consumes time

  • an increasing elderly population, many of whom no longer drive

  • a desire for low-maintenance living spaces.

The Mixed Use Guide provides examples of how a well-designed mixed use development offers flexible space within an existing building, block or neighbourhood, for a variety of uses that change over time. It shows how different uses can work in combination – while methods exist for insulating one from the other where necessary. For example, built-in flexibility achieved through taller ceiling heights on the ground and first floors allows later changes in use.

The Mixed Use Guide shows how designing flexibility into a project to respond to changes in demand for a particular type of space can have long-term benefits. The Mixed Use Guide extends the potential lifespan of a new development without necessarily affecting construction cost in an adverse way.


Mixed use developments, by their nature, encourage a steady flow of foot and/or vehicular traffic to their premises. The Mixed Use Guide acknowledges that, while this traffic constitutes a ‘built-in’ passive security system, it also requires that occupants and visitors have clearly defined access points into the building or site. Access ways must safely accommodate all pedestrians and vehicles visiting the site. Integration of developments into external transport networks is emphasised by the Mixed Use Guide as important and valuable.

The Mixed Use Guide also highlights that when mixed use developments are well designed their active street frontages can serve to maintain continuity of retail areas that would otherwise be interrupted by an exclusively residential development.


The Mixed Use Guide stresses the importance of using the best and most creative designers and architects on mixed use projects. It acknowledges the increased complexity inherent in mixed use projects but also highlights the benefits of using consultants who can deal with such complexities. For example, design is a key factor in determining a development’s acceptance by the community, its saleability and the ease of its future management. Discussion of the importance of creativity in generating a sense of place and identity for mixed use developments is also included in the Mixed Use Guide.

Gladstone Road, Parnell, Auckland uses transparent windows and moveable louvers to enable communication with the street from above-ground residential apartments. The ground floor spills out on to the street to add vitality to the public realm.


The Mixed Use Guide highlights that well-designed mixed use developments can be beneficial to the environment by:

  • intensifying town centres, thereby reducing sprawl and conserving the city’s natural environment

  • enabling occupants to reduce the amount of time they spend travelling, thereby decreasing road congestion, traffic pollution and wasted time

  • providing increased opportunities for using public transport, walking and cycling

  • enhancing the quality of the local environment by creating lively, populated urban areas

  • creating an environment that is safe by combining facilities that are active at different times of the day

  • seeking to minimise the effects on quality and quantity of stormwater generated from the site

  • incorporating passive and active solar design features that are integrated into the overall design and allow for future maintenance.

The Lofts, Albany uses a landscape strip to create a visual buffer from the road.


There is a strong emphasis in the Mixed Use Guide on choosing the right professionals for a mixed use project. Engaging a quality architect is one of the best ways to achieve a successful outcome for both the developer and occupants. Involving an architect who is experienced in mixed use developments early in the design stages of a project will help avoid problems that could otherwise require costly remedial measures after the development has been built.

The cost and time advantages that come from adequate consultation with local authorities is also emphasised, as well as the use of pre-application meetings and urban design review panels, where they are available.

Lessons learnt

In order for the Council to have gained the best possible value from the Mixed Use Guide a promotional strategy should have been implemented. This would have helped to raise user awareness and understanding of the Mixed Use Guide and its use.

In addition to a promotional strategy, ongoing capacity building is needed to maximise the Council’s return on investment in the Mixed Use Guide and to educate the target audience of developers, designers, architects, councillors, commissioners and regulatory planners. Further work is also required in developing a checklist to help both designers and regulatory planners to work through the various sections of the Mixed Use Guide. The effectiveness of a checklist is about to be tested for another design guide.

Sarah Lindsay, the urban designer at the Council who managed the Mixed Use Guide project says:

… guides such as this one are most useful for raising awareness about specific forms of development, how such developments should be designed and why they are important in a larger city/regional context. However there is still work to do in promoting both the Guide and the benefits – economic, social and environmental – of good design ...

Value gained

The Mixed Use Guide is a valuable resource in the establishment of a North Shore City Plan Change for new Mixed Use Zone rules.2 This section of the North Shore City District Plan has been created to assist in the delivery of mixed use development in areas of Browns Bay and Albany Village; areas believed to be suitable for high-quality mixed use development. The Mixed Use Guide has been used to formulate a district plan change with new rules and assessment criteria.

The Mixed Use Guide is also a valuable resource for council planners when dealing with applicants. The document allows easy comparison between a series of benchmarks and the applicants’ proposed developments. Illustrations and diagrams aid communication between applicants and processing officers. Having objective examples in the Mixed Use Guide for the planning officers to refer to avoids the tendency for applicants to assume any negative responses to elements of the proposal are subjective. Applicants who are referred to the Mixed Use Guide during a pre-application meeting tend to then self-analyse their design in terms of the Guide and refer to it in subsequent applications.


The desire for sustainable urban communities with efficient use of infrastructure in New Zealand cities has resulted in a call for increased residential density in urban areas. Creating mixed use developments in town centres can help to achieve increased urban densities, but density on its own is not enough – good design is crucial for urban living to be a viable long-term option for New Zealanders. Statutory planning rules alone are not a guarantee of quality urban design. It is important that the campaign for quality design is addressed on several fronts. These include education and raising awareness through design guides such as the Mixed Use Guide, and the ongoing capacity building of designers and decision makers.