We talk with Stuart Bowden, Urban Designer and Principal Landscape Architect, about some of the drivers behind urban planning and design internationally in the face of intensive population growth in our urban areas.

Across Asia Pacific, rapid population growth is having a tremendous impact on our cities. In New Zealand, for example, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) figures indicate 43,000 new residents call Auckland home every year, on top of the 1.65 million inhabitants who already live, work, learn and play in the city.

Such movement requires new and innovative thinking around urban design, development, planning and sustainability, to improve natural and urban environments, and enable people to be active and connected members of their communities.

So firstly, what makes you so passionate about urban design and transformation?

Like most people, I’ve got a vested interest in what our collective future looks like.  I’m driven by the need to understand and address the most significant challenges posed to our generation – our environmental impacts, our social inequities and the increasingly disconnected view of our place in the world.

You’ve worked extensively in the Middle East and in Australia, on some major projects and urban development strategies.  What would you say are some key insights that could apply to any city in the region?

Working on a project in Abu Dhabi in the UAE, really ignited a new way of looking at projects for me. I led the master planning for the public realm for Masdar city, working alongside Foster + Partners, a British architecture and integrated design studio. 

Our ultimate (and client-led) goal was to create a zero carbon, zero waste city. Our approach looked at a ’systems-based’ breakdown of how to achieve a harmonious balance across different environmental, social and economic drivers, for a successful, sustainable and thriving city.

The underlying principles and systems we developed still guide me today, and are relevant to all of our professional outlooks regardless of discipline. Understanding the bigger picture is a critical starting point to our projects, when our goal is true and lasting transformation.

When you talk about a balance across different drivers, how important do you think it is to join the dots, and integrate urban design across disciplines; such as transportation, housing, and social infrastructure?

It is clear that there cannot be any semblance of long term success without taking an holistic approach to growth. As we all know, our communities and their context are an interconnected and complex world.

Our traditionally siloed worlds of transport or built environments are now acknowledged as being parts of broader community aspirations. There is a growing acceptance that concepts such as identity, belonging, wellbeing, opportunity and cultural influences are vital ingredients of successful communities. It’s critical that we are able to act as advocates for integration and holistic thinking.

How do you think technology will impact (or is currently impacting) on urban design?

New and evolving technology will have a profound impact on our collective future. A great example is the seismic shifts that are likely to occur in our future transportation options.

We often focus on the problems associated with cars like safety, pollution and time wasted in traffic jams, but we don’t often focus on the sheer space cars take up in our cities and towns.  Some estimates put the space given up to vehicles (including parking, roads and their need to access every part of our built environment) at 40-50 per cent of our cities.

It’s not hard to agree that it’s all inefficient and wasteful. If we could reclaim even a fraction of this land from vehicles, we could re-imagine our urban environments and new technology is leading the way for change. If we better understand and plan for ride sharing, self-driving vehicles, e-vehicles, reduced private car ownership or on-demand public transport, we could re-purpose under-utilised land and unlock an incredible opportunity sitting right under our noses.

With smaller or less streets and fewer parking spots, our cities would have more land to work with - to build more affordable housing, say. It is undoubtedly an important new trend that will shape and form our future cities.

How would you describe the role of sustainability and environmental awareness as part of urban design and transformation, now and in the coming decades?

It would be easy to understate how important it is for us to understand and embrace sustainable practices in our professional world.

We are facing unparalleled environmental challenges and threats to our communities, and we’ve collectively been disturbingly slow to act on what we know. We have the tools within our grasp to make changes for the better in our current and future work, but we need to make a conscious decision to change our ways, and think long-term.

What do you feel are going to be the major factors, or challenges, influencing growth in Tāmaki Makaurau?

I really think that global influences will have the greatest impact on our future growth and direction. We are beholden to market forces that extend well beyond our political boundaries. Global shifts in demand for resources, financial and political stability and borderless economies have the potential to profoundly influence the New Zealand and Auckland outlook.

What contribution is Beca’s Design Practice making to Auckland’s urban transformation?

Beca’s Design Practice is about 60 people strong (30 in Auckland) and is made up of Architects, Landscape Architects and Urban Designers. I like to think that we are involved in almost all areas of Auckland’s growth and development, from greenfields and brownfields development, to projects that address housing, education and health needs, public transport and land use integration - the list goes on.



About the Author
Stuart Bowden

Principal - Landscape Architecture and Urban Design

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