The bright side of urban planning history


Thomas Nash draws on the story of Cuba Street to make the case for a people-centric, climate-friendly transport future for Wellington

Would you accept planning advice from an organization that opposes the development of your city’s busiest street? It’s a question that surfaced last month when the Wellington Chamber of Commerce led the charge on a new campaign challenge the city’s plans to prioritize public and active transportation over private cars.

The Chamber of Commerce has a history of debates on transport and urban planning in the capital. It turns out that the decade-long effort to turn parts of Cuba Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1960s and 1970s is instructive for today’s discussions of Wellington’s future.

Since its redesign 40 years ago, Cuba Street has become a more exciting, popular and desirable commercial street. No one today would object to the way he prioritizes people over cars. Yet in the fight to make these malls happen, the Wellington Chamber of Commerce said the changes would “kill downtown commerce”. A spokesperson at the time insisted: “You cannot close the main streets. We have to fight it.

Along with the Chamber of Commerce, the Wellington Automobile Association and the Wellington Property Investors Association also opposed the creation of the Cuba Mall as we know it today.

Sound familiar?

If the Wellington Chamber of Commerce was on the wrong side of history on Cuba Street in the 1970s, it may well be on the wrong side of history when it comes to today’s efforts to improve the city.

The history of Cuba Street also reveals a striking parallel with today in terms of public debate, popular mandate, political decisions and institutional interests.

Proposed changes to Cuba Street were discussed at length from 1965 until 1979, when work was finally completed on the two pedestrian sections of Cuba Street. But it was only after a change of councilors at the local body election in 1977 that the final plans were given the green light. It was also at this time that the opponents expressed their objections the most.

There is a similar pattern with Let’s get Wellington moving.

This is a unique city shaping program. It has seen five years of work, multiple rounds of public consultation and much debate. Since the current plans emerged in 2018, a local body and general election have returned a mandate for a city that expands public and active transportation rather than one that builds more roads.

In 2020, party votes in wellington flocked in droves to parties who largely bought into the plans being finalized. Of course, there were plenty of wider factors at play in this election, but the National Party, which ran a visible grassroots campaign to prioritize another freeway tunnel through the central city, won fewer votes than party in the three general constituencies of the City of Wellington as Labour. or the Greens. Likewise, in 2019, votes from Wellington city and regional councilors showed majority support for a city that is taking the climate crisis seriously and opening up space for people and public transport.

Let’s Get Wellington Moving is now at the end of discussions. Decisions are imminent on what options to offer the public for the main elements: new public transport across the city and, possibly, more freeways.

There has been outsized attention on a modest proposal to give people a single safe passage on the main road to the eastern suburbs, but the most important of the early works will be the opening Lambton Quay, Willis Street and Courtenay Square to more people and activities. This work is all the more necessary in a Covid world, both to provide more space to move around and to make these streets more attractive as a destination. Beyond this redesign of the “Golden Mile”, the big decision will be about public transport and how best to get people out of their cars with a new high-capacity, frequent public transport system across the city.

Two recent developments in Auckland are worth noting here. First, the Karangahape Road latest retail data showed an increase in pre-lockdown spending since the street opened with a new layout that prioritizes walking, wheeling and cycling. This is a well-documented phenomenon in cities around the world. Indeed, that’s what Cuba Street merchants noticed when the street was temporarily closed to traffic in 1965 and that’s why they created the Cuba Street Advancement Association to campaign for pedestrian malls in today.

Secondly, the government and the Auckland Council have create a fund of 12 million dollars for businesses affected by the construction of the City Rail Link. The Minister for Transport has signaled that a fund like this should be available for Auckland’s light rail. We should expect the same for transit works in Wellington.

The next few weeks will test decision makers. The choice is to think long-term and make capital fit for purpose in a low-emissions world, or to cave under the pressure of short-term interests.

Let us remember the history of Cuba Street when we formulate our opinions. If people had listened to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, the Wellington Property Investors Association and the Wellington Automobile Association in the 1970s, we wouldn’t have the Cuba Street we have today.

A people-centric and climate-friendly transport future is within Wellington’s reach. Let’s not be confused by the same institutions that wrongly opposed the opening of Wellington’s most iconic street. Instead, let’s move forward with a plan that reduces our emissions and improves our city in a way that, like Cuba Street, will stand the test of time.