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Park life: Inside Auckland's public space evolution

Published: 3 December 2018

It’s a simple equation: higher-density living requires high-quality public space. Every rapidly growing city in the world is facing up to the reality of intensification. So, how is Auckland doing? How are we adapting to changing preferences and demographics? And what’s happening to ensure these public assets are distributed evenly?

Wynyard Quarter, 8.30am

Early on Saturday morning, Viet Pham is waiting for his personal trainer at Silo Park. He personifies some of the major changes happening in Auckland, both in terms of his background and the way he embraces public space.

Pham was born in Vietnam and lives in Newmarket and, to escape the urban melee, makes a point of visiting different parks and beaches around the region and regularly explores the city’s walking tracks. “There are so many to choose from. It always feels like we're discovering something new.”

The changes to the waterfront at Wynyard Quarter have been a huge shift for Auckland. Ludo Campbell-Reid, Auckland Design Champion, says there was scepticism from some about spending that much money on restructuring a piece of industrial land for recreational use, but today it’s become a welcoming and hugely popular spot for families, children and, with its restaurants, bars and public events, revellers.

Further improvements are on the horizon. More tanks are being taken down in preparation for redevelopment ahead of the America’s Cup in 2021. In the future, the entire area will be redeveloped to include new parkland, plazas and a signature public building. Twenty-five thousand people are expected to work there by 2030, with 3000 people calling it home.

“People are flocking to Tāmaki Makaurau to live,” says Auckland Councillor Chris Darby. “They are New Zealanders and new Aucklanders from overseas. People want to live close to rapid transit – rail and bus routes. There’s a huge shift towards vertical living. A high percentage of new dwelling consents are for multi-units and apartments.

“Open space is vital. We’re looking at developing new town squares to anchor these communities.” In Takapuna on the North Shore, that means a new plaza.

“We want to create environments that are enticing. We’ll be installing lane gardens, shade-tree canopies and landscaping, creating places where people can linger, meet each other, engage. Before, it was about driving through to get somewhere rather than the street itself being the destination.

"Acquiring new public and green space is expensive, so we’re looking at reallocating some of that road space to people. New shared spaces will be about congregating for civic activities – young people gathering to experience a show, outdoor movies, commerce or even protests. It’s all of that – and more.”

Waterview Reserve, 11.30am

The sun's out and the Waterview Reserve is absolutely buzzing, a microcosm of modern, multicultural Auckland. It’s hard to believe, but it didn’t exist until around three years ago. Today, brightly coloured balloons and bunting hang from a gazebo for a party, a little girl takes a turn on the learn-to-cycle track and friendly banter fills the air during a game of basketball on the public court. Tanina Ahoafi of Māngere East, who’s watching her son on the slide, says she saw pictures of the reserve on her friends’ social media pages and decided to give it a try. “It’s a great spot. My son and his cousin have been loving it.”

Near the climbing frames, Erin Cheo sits with her husband as their seven-year-old daughter plays merrily in the interactive water feature, one of the elements that was designed with help from local Waterview Primary School students. The family, who live in Forrest Hill on the North Shore, try to get to a park each weekend. Their daughter’s current favourite is the Takapuna Beach playground.

Waterview Reserve’s path network, basketball and volleyball courts, BMX track, skate park, barbecue facilities and playground were created as part of one of the country’s biggest ever roading projects, the Waterview Connection, and it now lures visitors from near and far. It's a monument to the power of community engagement and a long-term vision to ensure Aucklanders get the public amenities they need.

The Unitary Plan, which aims to help Auckland meet its housing and economic goals and provides rules for what can be built where, has clearly signalled the future of Auckland is based around high-quality, higher-density living and has largely rendered the big backyard a luxury rather than a given. And as the premium on private land continues to increase, multi-use reserves like the one at Waterview, the redeveloped Taumanu Reserve on the Onehunga Foreshore or the revamped Potter’s Park playground in Sandringham are becoming increasingly important as the city evolves and intensifies.

Auckland city centre, 3pm

With a couple of Auckland Libraries’ books tucked under his arm, Bobby Gong of west Auckland walks past the terraced seating, planting and cascading water feature of Freyberg Place plaza in the High Street precinct. “Spaces [like this] are engaging communities and providing people with an attractive reason to come to the city,” he says. “I really like that Auckland has become more pedestrianised.”

Sam Sobt, from Iran, who is living in Auckland while studying for his PhD, agrees. He and his wife love the range of public spaces in the city.

“People need space, entertainment and fun, an opportunity to walkaround. Coming to [Freyberg Place] gives me a good feeling.”

In 2012, Auckland Council predicted that the city centre’s population of 27,000 would grow to 45,000 by 2032. That figure was reached last year, 15 years ahead of schedule. Now, around 53,000 people live in the city centre and it is growing at six times the rate of the overall region. Another 30,000 are expected to be living there in the next 10 years.

Because of this increased popularity, billions of public and private dollars have flowed into development projects in the city centre. Auckland’s concrete jungle is being replanted and new and/or redesigned public spaces are increasingly prioritising people’s enjoyment over car-based convenience. That’s a big shift from the Auckland of 20 years ago, says Campbell-Reid.

“The pavements were narrow, there was no waterfront, the streets were filled with cars,” he says. “It’s not about a fight against the car, it’s just about reclaiming the streets and places for people.”

That momentum is continuing with the major changes planned as part of the Downtown Programme.

Campbell-Reid says groundbreaking projects such as Hurstmere Green in Takapuna; Westgate, which has a series of public squares; and the new Manukau Institute of Technology building have shifted the paradigm for the way people experience and think about Tāmaki Makaurau’s urban hubs.

So, what’s the plan?

At Cox’s Bay Reserve, the Rowe family are enjoying a picnic lunch in the shade, while on the cricket pitch a club match is taking place. Gina Rowe says they come to the reserve each week following their daughter’s dance class nearby. Her husband, Roger Rowe, who runs a weekly kids’ athletics club in Massey’s Moire Park, knows the importance of having green spaces. “It’s how we grew up, a real Kiwi thing, running around, barefoot in the park.”

Despite the massive changes that are occurring in the city, the plan is for that to remain ‘a real Kiwi thing’. Auckland Council’s Head of Parks Services, Mark Bowater, says the region’s extensive park network offers a wide variety of different spaces for diverse and growing communities and the council works with local boards and community groups to ensure the parks in their areas reflect demand.

“This may include responding to an increase or decrease in popularity of certain sports or recreational activities, new technology or addressing biodiversity issues like kauri dieback or myrtle rust.”

Councillor Penny Hulse, Chair of the Environment and Community Committee, says kauri dieback track ambassadors will be out during summer, raising awareness of the disease. The council is also working with local boards and communities to protect high-value, disease-free kauri.

“Auckland has so many amazing spaces to walk, picnic and play in, but it is important that residents and visitors to the city take care of these spaces by preventing the spread of kauri dieback,” says Hulse.

“This includes taking note of park closures and opting to visit another of the 4000 parks across the region.”

Auckland is now one of the most diverse cities in the world, and attitudes to public spaces are changing, says Paul Spoonley, Pro Vice-Chancellor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University. Many new Aucklanders aren’t attracted to the idea of the ‘quarter-acre pavlova paradise’ that long existed in New Zealand. New kinds of housing solutions are needed, and different things are being demanded of the city.

“New sports and leisure activities are emerging,” says Spoonley. “Have a look at neighbourhood basketball courts, or all-weather football pitches or table tennis facilities, and see how well used they are.”

The council is addressing those demands by creating and supporting new public spaces and infrastructure – or, in the case of some city-owned golf courses such as Chamberlain Park, opening that space up so a wider range of residents can enjoy it.

Embracing Māori culture and heritage is also a point of difference in New Zealand, says Campbell-Reid. The involvement of mana whenua is crucial when it comes to ensuring Auckland’s public spaces hit the mark.

“Te Aranga Māori Design Principles are incorporated into new development projects. It’s not just the artwork, it’s the stories we’re revealing through each project,” he says.

Ōtāhuhu Station, the Commercial Bay precinct in central Auckland, Te Ara i Whiti – The Lightpath and Taumanu Reserve in Onehunga are all examples that incorporate the principles to ensure culturally grounded design and empowerment of the communities the facilities serve.

In many cities around the world, public space is inequitably distributed. Wealthy areas typically get more of it and it’s usually of higher quality, while less affluent areas are often underserved. Research suggests the availability of well-maintained public space can improve wellbeing and social cohesion. Auckland Council has recognised that it needs to do more to provide quality public spaces in low socioeconomic areas.

Bowater says its goal is to make sure that a neighbourhood park is within a 400-metre walk (around four minutes) in medium- to high-density areas and a 600-metre walk (around six minutes) in all other residential areas. It also aims to provide a suburb park within a one-kilometre walk in medium- to high-density areas and a 1.5-kilometre walk in all other residential areas. Destination and regional parks of more than 30 hectares accommodate large numbers of visitors from further afield.

The council will continue to acquire land for parks and open spaces to cater for the city’s growth. One recent large purchase is the Te Rau Puriri Regional Park in South Head, which will give Aucklanders another connection to the Kaipara Harbour. Added to that, planning permission for major developments typically requires a certain amount of land to be set aside for public use, as can be seen in places such as Tāmaki and Hobsonville, both of which have created more cohesive neighbourhoods by designing spaces that fit the needs of the community.

Today, Campbell-Reid says Auckland Council staff are regularly consulted by other cities to advise them on how to deal with intensification.

“We are seen as progressive. Our cycling programme, our waterfront programme and our shared-space programme are all globally regarded. We’ve got a long way to go but are headed in the right direction.”

A survey in 2018 by global consultancy Mercer backed him up. It ranked Auckland third out of 450 cities for quality of life, just behind Vienna and Zurich. Acclaimed American landscape architect Thomas Woltz – who has been heavily involved in developing a 100-year master plan for Cornwall Park – has also said Auckland is doing an extraordinary job of treading the fine line between beautiful, functional public spaces and high-density development.

Some of that is down to good luck: Auckland’s location between three harbours and numerous volcanoes means it is naturally blessed. But, when it comes to the steadily increasing number and quality of the city’s man-made public assets, that’s all down to good, long-term planning.