Putting people at the heart of our cities

On the 20th of March, an enthralled audience in Wellington’s St. James Theatre witnessed talks by Salvador Rueda and Janette Sadik-Kahn. It was an urbanist’s dream come true.

They represented a gathering of like-minded urbanists—people who live and breathe various forms of urbanism and, in many instances, like me, base their livelihoods on allied professions like architecture, landscape architecture, city planning, and urban design.

Both Salvador (Director of the Territorial and Urban Ecology Foundation of Barcelona) and Janette (currently a Principal with Bloomberg Associates) are, and deserve to be, internationally renowned for changing urban mobility patterns in their cities towards a more sustainable model.

Janette’s Street Fight book is a must-read, and with Salvador, the work he continues to relentlessly champion on reconceptualizing the form of the city should seriously challenge our thinking here in Aotearoa.

From my early days as a student of city planning in Spain, I have known about Salvador’s work on implementing ‘Superblocks’ (Superillas in Catalán).

I have had the privilege of working with Salvador to apply some of his critical thinking to Wellington, with a key component being the commonly understood idea of ecosystemic urbanism and the associated idea of superblocks. However, to work, it needs an urban regeneration (spatial) plan of mixed-use perimeter blocks and an orthogonal perimeter thoroughfare network for public (transport) and private motorists to use.

The resulting mahi on a Te Aro Superblocks spatial plan essentially promoted the reduction of bottlenecks in the city and the introduction of a sustainable urban model to create a comfortable, greener, water-sensitive, and hyper-connected network of public spaces for workers, visitors, and residents to access.

If you want to know more about my connection with Salvador, please read this ArchitectureNow article.

This work was featured in Jan Gehl’s 2021 Public Space Public Life Survey (PSPL), a hard-to-find report commissioned by the disestablished Let’s Get Wellington Moving.

Subsequently, in 2022, Salvador’s model also caught the imagination of Melburnians interested in ways to make the most of their grid-based inner city, with particular benefits for pedestrians. The idea sticks once you have read about it.

When Janette and Salvador spoke at the 2WalkandCycle conference in March, they were speaking to people who believe that our cities and the transport networks within them can be transformed. They provided attendees with much-needed motivation.

Separately, they also spoke in Auckland with Janette in an event with the Rt Hon Helen Clark and Salvador as an Auckland Conversations guest.

The biggest splash made by Salvador was probably in Christchurch, where his talk was captured by the Te Pūtahi Centre for Architecture and City Making and where The Press provided a lone glimmer of wider media coverage.

The article acknowledged Salvador for his role as a leader in the urban regeneration of Barcelona and quoted his praise for Christchurch’s experimental redesign of Gloucester Street as “gorgeous” and “magnificent”.

These were refreshing words to hear at a time when we need to resist being dejected by a perceived undermining of urban design principles and other wider policy settings.

My concern, especially in our current political climate, is that the concepts we can pick up and transfer from visionaries like Salvador need to move from isolated conversation starters to persistent advocacy and action to influence decision-makers.

Wellington will this month be a kind of litmus test when the responsible Minister, Chris Bishop, gets to side with the city’s reinvigorated district plan—or not.

If it’s a green light, then the underlying spatial plan, also known as an integrated land-use and transport strategy, will need sustained advocacy and action to keep advancing.


Let’s treat this with sustained advocacy. Bring it on, Aotearoa!

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