Urban Designer - Vernacular Architect - Maritime Planner - Owner-Builder - Servant of Piglet - Educator - Author - Revolutionary - Peacenik - Tour Guide 

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Auckland Peace City Print E-mail

ImageIn the Arab world, where the streets are narrow and walled, you can put your door wherever you like along your frontage. When the person across the road builds they too can put their door wherever they want, but not opposite your door. It is a matter not only of courtesy. It avoids conflict.



When you look out of the window of your house directly into the window of your neighbour's house it is only a matter of time before the architecture brings the neighbours into conflict. No one likes to feel that they are being constantly observed. It does not matter that you are not actually being watched. It seems as though you are. When the roles reverse and you become the voyeur observing your neighbour it will not be long before you become obsessively interested in what your neighbour is doing. It is unhealthy. Even when the windows of your house look into your neighbour's property rather than your own conflicts will develop. Your view is of trees that you want trimmed, but they are your neighbour's trees. You do not like the colour the neighbour has painted their house. You want to take control of your neighbour's life rather than your own, and resentment and misunderstanding will be the inevitable result. The way we build generates conflicts between people. Peace is a significant architectural and urban design issue.
The Arabian street suggests an alternative. The urban form of our cities could reduce conflict and significantly enhance not only our happiness but also our relationships. Our architecture could be empowering rather than disempowering.
A great deal of violence in our cities is our own fault. Our built environment inevitably leads to tension and conflict. It does not need to be like that. Our architecture could lead to harmony and happiness. We need to deal with the architectural problem rather than the symptoms.
When the built environment leads to peace we say we have a "Peaceful City". This idea of peaceful cities is now part of the global United Nations agenda, but it all began in New Zealand.
Back in 1995 three young New Zealanders, Megan Howell, Mark Tollemache and Heidi Mardon went to Nairobi for the Second Preparatory Committee for the United Nations Habitat II Conference, which was to be held in Istanbul the following year. The New Zealand government decided that they could not afford to send a delegation and so by default the three students became the New Zealand delegation. The oldest student was less than half the age of the youngest other delegate at the meeting.
If you are going to change the world you need powerful ideas which can be easily understood, can be easily communicated, and are able to survive being translated into a hundred languages.
By this time the Habitat II Conference was being called the "Cities Summit", recognising the fact that very soon more than half of the world's six billion people would be living in cities. The United Nations was founded to achieve peace. Putting the two ideas together resulted in the concept of "Peaceful Cities".
With great skill the students lobbied to have their idea incorporated into the official United Nations document which would eventually be taken to Istanbul to be signed by all of the world's leaders.
Recognising that tenacity is important in politics Megan and Mark went on to New York for the Third Preparatory Committee to argue their case. They succeeded.
A large delegation of students then went to the "Cities Summit" itself and they invited Mayor Bob Harvey to join them to gain a voice in the Mayoral Forum. The official New Zealand government delegation, when it arrived, was briefed by the students. When Bob Harvey discovered what was happening he contacted Don McKinnon back in New Zealand, and the text of the New Zealand ambassador's speech to the Plenary Assembly was rewritten. She launched the idea of "Peaceful Cities" onto the world stage.
Habitat II was concerned with architecture and urban design and the focus of "Peaceful Cities" was on the built environment. There have been other global initiatives which focus on peace in a more general sense but the advantage of the "Peaceful Cities" concept is that it can be easily understood and, more importantly, that it can be easily implemented at both a personal and a local government level.
It can be as simple as making certain that your window does not look into your neighbour's window, It can mean internalising your views so that you look at your own property rather than your neighbour's. Then if you do not like the colour you are looking at you can head outside with a paint brush and change it. If the tree needs trimming then go outside and trim it. A "Peaceful City" not only reduces conflict but also empowers its citizens. Peace is a positive idea. It is much more than just avoiding war. Peaceful people are happier and healthier.
At the June 2007 Council Meeting the Auckland City Council declared itself to be a Peace City, following the example of Waitakere, Christchurch and Hutt City. Some felt the notion was vague and meaningless but it does not need to be. When you next find yourself the victim of road rage, or almost run over on a pedestrian crossing, ask yourself if design could have made a difference. City conflicts are almost always architectural and urban design issues.
The way we build can make our cities places of conflict or places of peace. Our buildings will be with us for a long time in a carbon-neutral world. It is important to get them right the first time around.
Tony Watkins lectured on Peaceful Cities at the University of Auckland  from the time of Habitat II in Istanbul until his retirement.
Next >