21 Jun 2018

Urban design thinking can rescue our dairies

8:27 pm on 21 June 2018

By Ludo Campbell Reid*

Opinion - The humble dairy is under siege and it's going to take a collective effort, and some smart design, to turn that around, writes Auckland Council's Ludo Campbell Reid.

Video footage shows one of the offenders inside Aberdeen Superette.

Video footage shows one of the offenders inside Aberdeen Superette. Photo: Supplied

The humble dairy. This iconic centerpiece of every local New Zealand neighbourhood is under siege.

Often owned and operated these days by hard working immigrants striving to make a better life for themselves and their families, toiling 16 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.

Always there for a Lotto ticket, a morning newspaper, perhaps a sausage roll, fresh bread and milk, an icecream for the kids, or a belated bunch of flowers on the run.

How often these modest shops and smiling owners rescue us from our busy days.

So if we count on dairies so much, why do we tolerate the high number of brutal robberies that owners and their families endure?

Is it acceptable to New Zealanders that shop staff live in fear of their lives with baseball bats behind the counter? Shouldn't we be doing more?

I have travelled the length and breadth of this great country, both in my professional capacity and holidaying with family and friends, but I can't help notice the story is sadly the same.

Dairy owners and their families are struggling. Often becoming front page news, they are on a knife edge, physically and economically. And they desperately need our help before another person gets killed.

Government grants toward safety equipment such as CCTV cameras, alarms and fog cannons - often costly to install - do not dent a thieve's desire to pick off these easy targets.

I have heard of a shop owner who already had 20 CCTV cameras installed. Will one more do the trick? And are heavy cage doors and barred windows, reminiscent of war-torn towns overseas, really the answer?

Of course, there is no single clear cut solution. It will take a combined effort to restore dairies as safe havens at the epicentre of our communities: Police, business owners and operators, landlords, social services, suppliers, central and local government all working together, all seeking solutions.

As an urban designer and someone who has spent his life assisting cities, councils and governments all over the world to improve their built environments, I believe urban design can play a decisive role in turning their fortunes around.

We must look proactively to find ways to design out crime to create safer, more attractive, more vibrant environments to help our main streets and communities thrive.

This means improving the urban design, not only of our streets and the wider public realm, with a particular focus on reducing vehicle speeds, but also a re-design of dairies themselves including their internal layout, shelving heights, lighting, fixtures, entranceways and also their shop frontages to make them more open, more transparent, more welcoming.

A photo of Adam Du in front of the Burwood dairy he has worked for three years. It was robbed in August.

Adam Du had worked at this Burwood dairy for three years before it was robbed in August Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Many dairy shopfronts that I have visited have their windows covered over with unattractive advertising and marketing paraphernalia. I was always told that with street based retail, less is always more when it comes to advertising.

Windows are often boarded up preventing natural daylight to penetrate deep into the shop and doorways are narrow and concealed. There are just too many hidden nooks and crannies for opportunist thieves to go to work. Counterintuitively to some it all feels too private, even clandestine to me.

We are talking about a shop where children stop off on their way home from school or where they go to spend their pocket money at weekends.

If I wanted to design an environment to encourage crime then here's an ideal blueprint.

Suppliers in particular must be aware that by encouraging dairy owners to have windows with advertising from top to bottom, they are contributing to the risks.

I don't think anyone involved is actually intending to create a problem, instead they are not seeing the link.

Nobody robs banks anymore because they follow a retail based design approach where the facilities are open, airy, well-lit and highly visible from the outside.

Nowadays it's all about customer experience, with clear unobstructed views outside from the inside and vice versa. That's actually how traditional retailers used to operate and arrange their premises.

And that brings me to my last point: cigarettes. They are a major culprit - a source of extra revenue but at the same time they add to the risk immeasurably. If they must be sold in dairies then they must be stored in ways to discourage violent smash 'n grab opportunism.

There are solutions such as locating them far away from the entrance so that would-be opportunists have to travel deep into the shop and are further away from escape. Surely tobacco manufacturers could assist with dispensing equipment that is safe and secure? Working together in innovative ways they could solve this.

It will also take work to fix the social circumstances which encourage gangs to seek violent ways out of their predicament.

As a council, we are working with police in a range of areas. We've produced design guidance for retailers over the years and started many initiatives including a designing-out crime hub on the Auckland Design Manual which gives a range of advice.

Government, industry, councils, police, owners, landlords and local communities must all pull together. We must fight back.

If we don't, then I am very worried that one day we will wake up and the quintessential local dairy, the iconic heart of the Kiwi main street, will be gone forever.

* Ludo Campbell Reid is Auckland Council's urban design champion