Imagine designing an entire suburb of Auckland, like Devonport or Ponsonby, from scratch. This is Hobsonville Point – a medium-density suburb designed with the infrastructure necessary to generate socially successful and sustainable communities. Today, there are thousands of new homes on safe streets, new transport networks, schools, parks, playgrounds and public amenities in place (or planned) at this successful new Auckland suburb.
For many New Zealanders, the suburban ideal is best represented by regiments of tightly packed villas and bungalows addressing narrow streets. But new suburban developments often dish up something more like Flat Bush – big houses on too-small sections behind too-high fences that contribute little to the essence of the neighbourhood. This is not because we can’t build good houses – New Zealand architects design some of the best domestic architecture in the world. We just seem to have lost the art of putting together everyday suburbs.
Hobsonville Point addresses this conundrum. The new, 167 hectares suburb is being developed neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood by the Hobsonville Land Company (HLC) on what was once New Zealand Defence Force land. In the early 2000s, HLC, a subsidiary of Housing New Zealand, received a mandate to establish around 3,500 homes here. Its mission: “To build a strong, vibrant community that sets new benchmarks for quality and accessible urban development with an environmentally responsible focus.”
In 2007 Isthmus began work on the Hobsonville Point masterplan, addressing the challenging subject of land development as a complete design discipline (incorporating design planning, urban design, landscape architecture and architecture) and establishing a framework for a ‘complete’ suburb.
Early design moves at Hobsonville Point included establishing community facilities and other opportunities for social activity, including the Catalina Cafe, and Hobsonville Point Park. A Farmers Market provided an additional social hub, while the open space network developed strengthened the coastal edge and connected a number of old and new destinations. In the early days of development, these were necessarily top-down rather than bottom-up strategies. As time passed, the balance shifted from HLC-funded and managed activities to community participation and ownership.
The Hobsonville Point masterplan is based on deep research into successful neighbourhoods, with many important findings coming from the examination of Victorian suburbs where houses sit side by side on narrow sections, aligned to the street and close to it. The research included character studies that qualified the attributes of existing heritage neighbourhoods in comparison to newer ones. Blocks and streets were analysed through a “variation matrix”, with similarities and differences in streetscapes discerned and key observations were recorded around the density, intimacy, streetscapes and architecture of places like Freemans Bay and Devonport, where there is stylistic consistency but also variety and imperfection. A key finding was that value follows amenity: consumers will pay higher prices in heritage suburbs, not simply because of their proximity to the central city and its amenities, but because they are satisfying places to live. These suburbs are successful across all scales.
Hobsonville Point is a collection of diverse neighbourhoods designed to be more resilient and adaptable to change than is the standard development model. The first key planning move was to establish a ‘spine’ road – an organising principle found in tramway neighbourhoods. Anchored by Hobsonville Village at one end, Hobsonville Point Road follows the contours of the peninsula to The Landing, a harbourside ferry and waterfront precinct. In between these poles, commercial and community facilities are clustered with shops at key intersections. Side streets intersect with the spine at frequent intervals and, typically, the blocks are aligned at right angles to maximise walkability for a majority of residents while promoting the main road as the centre of the community.
The building controls of Hobsonville Point Road permit buildings up to three and four storeys high as well as buildings close to the street frontage with shallow setbacks and step-ups to provide transition and privacy, and a higher proportion of apartments and terraces. While the neighbourhood street pattern is grid-like, the streets and blocks are arranged as a collage of fragments in relation to topography, mimicking the way in which older suburbs grew organically. This design approach allows the important quirks and imperfections that provide authenticity: the human characteristics of occupation.
In these neighbourhoods, the narrow carriageways reduce vehicle speed and create a shared character. Streets are social spaces for everyone. Kerbside parking is within bays separated by trees, and front-yard dimensions provide a variety of setbacks; front fences, gardens, porches and balconies change in level so that all houses engage with the street. At the same time, each has sufficient privacy, a clear boundary and a subtle transition from public to private space.
The broad-scale community-building move of Hobsonville Point Road finds a natural balance in a green network that encircles the various neighbourhoods, linking back across the peninsula so that routes are more or less available from any starting point. Hobsonville Point’s coastal walkway provides a continuous off-road four-kilometre circuit that links coastal-edge destinations. On the coast, a network of reserves reinforces the main peninsula landforms. They are ‘pockets’, connecting back to neighbourhoods through coastal gullies and accentuating the presence of inlets and headlands. It is a network of strong physical and visual connections. Streets either terminate at the coast or into the green network.
Hobsonville Point’s largest green place is Te Onekiritea Point, a peninsula promontory overlooking the upper harbour, with long views down to the central Auckland skyline. Te Onekiritea Point, a heritage landscape in its own right, is an anchor for the green network that provides value to all of Hobsonville Point’s residents and creates a destination for visitors. It is a regional asset, and by anchoring the green network with such a high quality park, the value of the suburb as a whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Design and control.
Hobsonville Point’s success is a result of design focus at each scale: the masterplan establishes the main ideas and principles and also the main structuring elements of Hobsonville Point Road, the perimeter green network and the two suburb-scale highlights of The Landing and Te Onekiritea Point.
At the medium scale, Hobsonville Point is divided into five main precincts: Buckley, Sunderland, Catalina, The Village and The Landing. Each has received specific design attention under evolving mechanisms. Buckley and Sunderland were designed under the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) provisions of Auckland’s District Plan. Catalina, on the other hand, was designed under the overlay provisions of the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP). It is likely that the development controls for The Landing will be put in place by way of a Plan Change, given the unique qualities of that precinct.
Despite the different mechanisms, each precinct is designed separately at this medium scale. Each is made up of streets and blocks; there are form-based controls for housing and neighbourhood highlights such as community buildings and local parts of the reserve network. Treating each precinct separately helps build a medium-scale organic character into Hobsonville Point.
The development controls devised for each precinct are then applied at the fine scale through a design review of individual lots and houses. The development strategy sees the tender of ‘super-blocks’ to preferred building partners, who submit their home designs to the Design Review Panel. This approach provides the necessary economies of scale while ensuring sufficient architectural variety for each precinct.
The development controls contain both a letter and a spirit. In the first precinct, Auckland Council administered the ‘standards’, and the design panel, under the auspices of HLC and AVJennings (the ‘masterbuilder’), administered the design guidelines. However, such a split meant that the letter and the spirit were not dealt with together. The current approach uses a single panel to administer both the standards and the guidelines, so that the letter and spirit can be considered together. The panel comprises the masterplanner, an architect, a representative of HLC and an urban designer from Auckland Council. This approach promotes diversity through the design interpretations of different architects.
The result is deliberately less perfect, but it reflects better the characteristics of successful suburbs, and feels more organic, more authentic and more human. Rather than architectural style, the guidelines specify the qualities of directness: an honesty and authenticity expressed in contemporary building styles. Favoured qualities also include a direct and relaxed relationship between buildings and open spaces; the appearance of lightness rather than massiveness in building form and materials; a relaxed, open-plan living style; individuality, complexity and richness in each building, street and neighbourhood; links to the coastal edge by way of streets and parks; an overall green impression, particularly a coherent green character in streets; and responsiveness to, and expression of, context and topography.
These qualities are intended to pervade Hobsonville Point and relate specifically to its context as a harbour-side suburb. But they are written in such a way as to promote individual interpretation by different architects rather than a predetermined style guide.
Andre de Graaf, Andrew Mirams, David Irwin, Haylea Muir, Brad Ward, Nick Pearson, Gavin Lister, Scott Donnell, Natasha Whitlock, Alan England, Adelle Hammond, Azmon Chetty, Emma Davis, John Broadbent, Marita Hunt, Matt Jones, Michael Chu, Sarah Bishop, Sean Burke, Travis McGee, Travis Wooller, Rebecca Jerram,
Garth Falconer, Evan Williams, Daniel Yang, Danbi Park, David Gregory, Grace He, Hanna O’Donohue, Karen Ehlers, Matt Peacocke, Paggy Shen, Scot Bathgate,
Salmond Road Architects
Mitchell & Stout Architects
Small House Test Lab
Nelson Byrd Woltz
Stevens Lawson Architects
John Reynolds (artist)
Bernard Makaoare (Ngati Whatua o Kaipara)
Flow Traffic Consultants
Calibre Consulting, Shanahan Architects (GJ Gardner Homes).
MHS Architects (V1)
Hobsonville Point Land Company