Dr Joel Cayford: Auckland spaces keep on falling

Queens Wharf shone during the Rugby World Cup, but has now been taken over by traffic. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Queens Wharf shone during the Rugby World Cup, but has now been taken over by traffic. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Public places suffer from lack of thought, writes Joel Cayford.

Albert Park is one of Auckland's oldest public spaces, reflecting the formality and culture of early British colonisers and a clear planning distinction between public and private.

Opened in 1979, Aotea Square reflects an altogether different history. It and Mayoral Drive were built following the demolition of lower Greys Inn Rd and much of old Auckland's urban fabric, enabling the creation of decongested road access to the CBD and high capacity central city car-parking. Meeting the accessibility and mobility needs of private car owners was a far greater priority than the creation of a successful public space at Aotea Square.

If Auckland's citizens or visitors feel some sort of connection with a public space it is more likely to be successful, but Aotea Square's success is limited to skateboarders and the protesters who recently occupied it.

Public spaces reflect the character of a city. My favourites include the South Bank in London, Xocalo in Mexico City, and Odori Park in Sapporo.

The earliest public spaces - Greek agora - were formed within a civilisation which valued democracy and recognised and accepted cultural difference. Public spaces provided citizens the means of building community life. They were places where people would meet, greet, talk and learn about each other. They were building blocks for tolerance and understanding.

If urban public spaces merely exist to provide more air, a view of the horizon to break the monotony of endless buildings, as a setting for alien artworks or as places to park vehicles, they will not be successful. Or if they are designed mainly as gathering places for consumers, like outdoor shopping malls dominated by shops and places to spend money, rather than time, then the broader public interest will not be served.

From a purely functional point of view, public places do need to provide seating, toilets and simple food. But to be successful they must also provide reasons to be there that are more than merely offering a place to chill or wait for the theatre or film to start - though people-watching appeals to many.

To be successful, to form part of the infrastructural heart and soul of a city, public spaces need safe places for children and the elderly, familiar connections for people from different cultures, and embodied reminders of a city's history, ancestry and heritage.

Little of this heart and soul is evident in Aotea Square, though it is improving. The children's playground at Wynyard Quarter is one of the greatest successes of that public space, though sadly its footprint is zoned for high-rise development. And maritime heritage and character reminders there are at huge risk from development pressure and a light-handed regulatory approach from Auckland Council.

Queens Wharf is Auckland's most recent public space. It was opened to the public two short years ago and rapidly became a political football. The moth-balled McCully Cloud and some cheap security fencing around its heritage shed are the visible reminders of that history. A sad superficial legacy for a place that embodies and still exudes Auckland maritime history.

At least twice in its short public life Queens Wharf has shown its potential. The first was when two Chinese warships came to visit. Queens Wharf became a magnet for Auckland's Chinese community, largely absent from the CBD following the loss of the waterfront Oriental Market. The second was early in the Rugby World Cup when Queens Wharf and downtown Auckland glowed with the energy and laughter of its Tongan and Samoan peoples.

Today, despite the sign that insists Queens Wharf is open to the public, it has been taken over by airport buses, taxis, casual traffic, and its very own roundabout and traffic lights. It is often dangerous for pedestrians entering and exiting the ferry terminal.

As a Devonport resident I now enjoy easy access to airport buses, but this traffic is the thin end of the wedge, building up to the establishment of a primary cruise ship terminal with its associated traffic demands which risks being the kiss of death for a truly great public space on Queens Wharf.

Thankfully, two thirds of submissions to Auckland Council's Annual Plan oppose a Queens Wharf cruise ship terminal. If the council does not heed these submissions, I will be among those who claim the council is suffering from agoraphobia, a fear of public places.

- NZ Herald

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