Urban designer Zoë Avery’s vision for cities

To help address the ‘polycrisis’ of climate change, biodiversity collapse and energy consumption, our cities need to be greener, healthier and more sustainable. Urban designer Zoë Avery is leading the charge.

Urban designer Zoë Avery
Nature should be considered as critical infrastructure, says Zoë Avery. Photo: Chris Loufte

In the concrete jungles of modern cities, the importance of nature often gets overlooked.

But for urban designer Zoë Avery, nature isn’t a mere afterthought; it’s a necessity to support life and to help with resilient, liveable, sustainable cities in the face of climate change and rapid urbanisation.

“Nature is a vital component of a healthy city and should be considered as critical infrastructure,” she says.

As the Associate Director of Design (Urban Planning) and a professional teaching fellow at Te Pare School of Architecture and Planning, Zoë champions a holistic approach to urban design that looks to integrate nature into the very fabric of our cities.

“With the effects of climate change, more flooding and drought and biodiversity collapse, we need a vision to achieve healthy, resilient, biodiverse, and more equitable cities for people and nature.

“We’ve lost 70 percent of the populations of animals, birds, fish, reptiles and insects since I’ve been on the planet. And while some still think nature is an expensive option, we must remember 100 percent of the economy is dependent on nature, from the food we eat to the air we breathe. Embracing nature and blue green networks can help us to solve environmental challenges holistically and sustainably.”

This year she is spearheading efforts for change as the lead organiser of the World Green Infrastructure Congress, which is being hosted by the School of Architecture and Planning, from 3 to 5 September.

The congress brings together 100 speakers from around the world who are at the forefront of using nature-based solutions to help make cities greener and healthier.

“It is a powerful catalyst that will hopefully empower us to reclaim our cities and neighbourhoods, and forge a path towards a greener future.”

Nature-based solutions provide cities with multiple benefits, including stormwater mitigation, urban heat reduction, pollution reduction, increased well-being and biodiversity, says Zoë.

Common strategies involve planting trees for shade and air purification, as well as incorporating elements like healthy soil and a mix of mid- and low-canopy native vegetation to support biodiversity. Other examples include living roofs, habitat features for wildlife, and moving away from traditional landscaping practices towards those that prioritise ecological health.

“This requires a physiological shift from the typical well-manicured lawns, grassed berms and low-diversity exotic gardens we are used to.”

But encouraging a shift in perspective is just one of many challenges. Zoë points out that current policies and legislation often see developers prioritise short-term gains over long-term sustainability.

“Understanding the true cost to society is not in the developer’s remit. The operating model results in sprawled out buildings and spaces being designed and constructed, loss of healthy soil, increased impermeable areas and limited space for planting vegetation. Meanwhile, the general public foot the majority of the costs for infrastructure, traffic congestion, and reduced mental health and wellbeing.”

Hundertwasser Art Centre and Wairau Māori Art Gallery
Zoë was part of the award-winning team that worked on the green roof of the Hundertwasser Art Centre and Wairau Māori Art Gallery. Photo: Zoë Avery

Tāmaki Makaurau serves as a striking example of this issue. Since the 1960s, we have been designing around vehicles rather than people, which has resulted in huge amounts of impervious surfaces and competing requirements for the limited space we have, says Zoë.

“Auckland has an urban ngahere (forest) strategy that aims for canopy cover of at least 15 percent. But some of the mahi we’ve been doing is showing that we can’t achieve those targets under our current regulations. Our Unitary Plan rules don’t require or leave enough space for nature.”

Zoë says her love of nature stems from her belief that it’s a miracle and worth protecting.

“I remember talking to my dad on the way to the school bus stop when I was eight years old, asking why we were polluting so much. He told me that if we could get people to somehow understand that the world is such an incredible phenomenon, we could change the plan – but the way we treated the planet, humans were bound for their own self-destruction,” she recalls.

“If we dedicated time to sit in nature and connect to it, to understand its magic and interconnectedness, I have no doubt the world would be a better place. We would be kinder to nature and recognise our innate connection to it.”

Before joining the University, Zoë spent 25 years working for private consultancies but grew weary of the bureaucratic ‘box ticking’ exercises that were part of the job. In need of a change that aligned with the work she was doing at the Environment Agency in London, she started urban design company, The Urbanist.

“I thought the best way to effect change was through creative work, which I do with The Urbanist, and by teaching students to think differently to help change the system, because the system is clearly not working.”

If we dedicated time to sit in nature and connect to it ... I have no doubt the world would be a better place.

Zoë Avery School of Architecture and Planning

Her passion for redefining urban spaces as havens where people and nature coexist harmoniously was recognised in 2023 when a team she was part of won the Built Environment Green Roof Award for the Hundertwasser Art Centre and Wairau Māori Art Gallery, in Whangārei.

The centre was originally designed by the late architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1993, and Zoë worked on the concept and detailed design of its living roof, which was completed in 2022 and includes 4,000 plants. The process involved collaboration among architects, landscape designers, engineers and environmental experts, with input from iwi and community stakeholders.

“Our design goal was to create a forest using a variety of New Zealand native plants. We integrated endemic species with fruiting trees, allowing people to wander through the forest and pick fruit.”

Zoë sees opportunities for transformation everywhere she looks – but says any change will require a comprehensive and unified response.

“This polycrisis of climate change, biodiversity collapse and energy consumption requires us to collectively come up with a vision for Aotearoa centred on nature-based solutions. To protect our environment, we need to unite and learn from one another.

“We simply don’t have a choice but to build resilient cities.”

Hussein Moses

This story first appeared in the May 2024 edition of UniNews.