2 June 2012
reinventing fort street
Like it or not, to occupy our city is to participate in a game between pedestrians and motor vehicles.
There are many who believe in the abolition of the motor vehicle from our most precious streets; that High Street ought to be pedestrianised as an extension of the Vulcan and Durham Laneways, or that even Queen Street ought to operate as an enormous pedestrian mall.
I am not among these. Auckland is a city of exhilarating potential: it is a superbly narrow isthmus and has a varied volcanic topography, a benign sub-tropical climate, an increasingly cosmopolitan demographic, and a magnificent harbour that it has yet scarcely grazed, let alone exploited. What it does not yet have, however, is many people, and what few we have are stubbornly diffused. The city is growing fantastically, as cities ought, but it is yet an infant.
In a city like this, in a street like Fort Street, a car counts as a fairly sizable chunk of action. Maneuvering amidst a smattering of hurried businesswomen, earnest parking wardens, laconic backpackers and the last vestiges of the fishnet-stockinged few, even my little Toyota seems lively. The deep-throated rumble of an iridescent purple, LED-lit, tricked-out Bentley delivers about the same level of interest and action here as at least twenty beer-hugging English globe-trotters. For all their vileness, these world-destroying petroleum-addicted beasts are enormous contributors to what makes our little streets hum.
Like it or not, to occupy our city is to participate in a game between pedestrians and motor vehicles. Every time we walk out our doors we pick a side – the team of the little green man, or the jay-walker – and commence battle. A year or so ago, our city decided it would change the playing field. Fort Street is the beginning, the flagship, and Elliot, Darby and Lorne (at least in part) are supporting acts. Footpaths have been abolished, roads torn up, and curb-lines – the sacred dividing line between the realm of the foot and the domain of the tire – vanished. In these streets pedestrians are to share space with vehicles, each roaming freely across an almost-undifferentiated flat plane, negotiating primacy from first principles.
It sounds dangerous, ugly and chaotic. The evidence from the rest of the world, we are told, is that it is safer. As a construction site – free of both cars and people – it looks elegant and exciting. Our lives are increasingly free of boundaries as we roam actual, political, social, cultural and cyber spaces unchecked; why not our streets too?
Within a few weeks both cars and people will be unleashed on this fluid field, and the game will begin anew. I’m not sure how long it will be until cars exit our lives altogether, but in the meantime, the game’s about to get a whole lot more interesting.