Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Successful Cities have Successful Civic Places



For decades the significance of public urban places and their role in facilitating public life has been given low priority by those responsible for shaping Auckland. But that does not mean the desire for civic space has gone away. Public concern over Queen Elizabeth Square and Queens Wharf attests to that.

Public places in cities have significantly contributed to urban life throughout history. In the beginning, people came together for social reasons. Gradually public places assumed spiritual, civic and market functions. And later, combinations of social, economic and cultural life happened in city squares and streets, in places adjacent to the cathedral or civic buildings, on streets where people lived, and where shops and workshops were located.

But with the advent of the automobile, urban squares and streets became receptacles for the movement and storage of the car, endangering those places for social and civic activities. Planners and engineers prioritised private vehicle use over public pedestrian safety. While this trend was largely reversed in Europe, especially during the 1970s when cars were excluded from central parts of hundreds of cities and towns, the automobile is still an important presence and burden.

The measure today of how civilized a city is, of how successfully a city has provided city squares and streets for public life, is the volume of pedestrian traffic in its civic spaces. However civic success is not just about managing the motorcar skillfully, it is primarily about remembering and respecting the skills of public space management. 

Civic spaces are not successful by accident – though sometimes they are – they are caused and planned by careful and deliberate action. Successful civic spaces need constant curating to ensure the balance of activities and uses is optimized. Left alone they become places of neglect. Empty places for lonely statutes, empty experiences, and empty of people. Civic spaces in cities are about people and life and culture.

Here in Auckland we have a world class civic space – developing and being curated in front of our eyes – from Silo Park with its collection of heritage boats, cement silos for photo-exhibitions and art and interpretation, children’s playground and basketball hoops, piano-playing by passer’s by, civilised outdoor food and eateries adjacent, popular coffee and food bars there - whose economic livelihoods are guaranteed by the presence of the ASB headquarter building and its workers, plenty of places to sit and stare, and a working waterfront with fishing boats, ferries, and marine industry, with more to come.

How this contrasts with Auckland’s dreadful Queen Elizabeth Square, privatised civic spaces on Princes Wharf, threatened public spaces on Queens Wharf, and mismanagement of Quay Street.

You don’t have to look hard for an explanation for these civic failures because they have have one influence in common. They are Auckland’s legacy from the development activities of the Auckland Harbour Board (AHB) and its corporatized offspring known now as Ports of Auckland Limited (POAL).

In 1963 AHB owned the reclaimed land at the foot of Queen Street now occupied by the Downtown Shopping Centre, HSBC Tower and Queen Elizabeth Square which was the public by-product of a successful overseas development tender. Despite objections from the Auckland Architects Association which built a model of the scheme demonstrating the wind and shading effects of the twenty-storey tower formally known as Air New Zealand House, the scheme went ahead largely unchanged. It is ironic that AHB’s prospectus for tenderers stated that: “pedestrian amenity will be a prime objective”.

AHB’s plans for its distinctive octagonal headquarter building on the base of Princes Wharf included paving and pedestrianisation of Quay Street to Queen Street, and from Queen Elizabeth Square across and up Queens Wharf. They also emphasized pedestrian access onto Princes Wharf from Quay Street beneath its headquarters whose first floor was built three stories above the wharf. The plans were granted upon appeal, but subject to the pedestrian areas being constructed “contemporaneously”, and that the building was only to be used as AHB’s HQ. Construction began in 1983, but promised pedestrian amenity never eventuated. AHB moved out after a few years, sublet the building as commercial office-space, and infilled the lower floors of the building, blocking that pedestrian access off Quay Street and onto Princes Wharf.

The development approach adopted later by POAL for Princes Wharf exhibits the same pattern: early proposals included significant public space around the wharf and at the end and a central street shown populated with pedestrians, maritime museum, galleries, a theatre and other public attractions; much of this was gone from plans by the time construction commenced in 1998; and since then a steady sequence of infill and development has been encouraged shading the central street, blocking access to public spaces, and allowing largely uncontrolled parking and traffic movements.

Today POAL still holds property rights around the edges of Queens Wharf which affect its public use, even though the wharf is “owned” by Auckland Council and Central Government, and its grip on other central wharves and surplus waterfront reclaimed land is primarily about delivering on its “successful business” objective.


Auckland stands at a kind of cross roads now. I’m picking that Auckland wants North Wharf on Quay Street, Queens Wharf and Queen Elizabeth Square. It most certainly does not want another Aotea Square, and certainly not another Princes Wharf.

It is time for a successful city – not just a collection of successful businesses – and in significant part that is about developing and managing successful civic spaces.

1 comment:

Nick Marsh said...

excellent analysis Joel- the contrast between Wynyard quarter excitement and Q Eliz Square etc traffic nightmare is so obvious to anyone who walks between them (without getting run over). An even worse example is the Bladerunner transport set up of Brisbane CBD- but at least they have tried to moderate it via the river development, and a pedestrian sector in the CBD which all Aussie cities have done despite retailer protest- we still don't get the message- Queen St and Quay St dies without pedestrianising it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Successful Cities have Successful Civic Places



For decades the significance of public urban places and their role in facilitating public life has been given low priority by those responsible for shaping Auckland. But that does not mean the desire for civic space has gone away. Public concern over Queen Elizabeth Square and Queens Wharf attests to that.

Public places in cities have significantly contributed to urban life throughout history. In the beginning, people came together for social reasons. Gradually public places assumed spiritual, civic and market functions. And later, combinations of social, economic and cultural life happened in city squares and streets, in places adjacent to the cathedral or civic buildings, on streets where people lived, and where shops and workshops were located.

But with the advent of the automobile, urban squares and streets became receptacles for the movement and storage of the car, endangering those places for social and civic activities. Planners and engineers prioritised private vehicle use over public pedestrian safety. While this trend was largely reversed in Europe, especially during the 1970s when cars were excluded from central parts of hundreds of cities and towns, the automobile is still an important presence and burden.

The measure today of how civilized a city is, of how successfully a city has provided city squares and streets for public life, is the volume of pedestrian traffic in its civic spaces. However civic success is not just about managing the motorcar skillfully, it is primarily about remembering and respecting the skills of public space management. 

Civic spaces are not successful by accident – though sometimes they are – they are caused and planned by careful and deliberate action. Successful civic spaces need constant curating to ensure the balance of activities and uses is optimized. Left alone they become places of neglect. Empty places for lonely statutes, empty experiences, and empty of people. Civic spaces in cities are about people and life and culture.

Here in Auckland we have a world class civic space – developing and being curated in front of our eyes – from Silo Park with its collection of heritage boats, cement silos for photo-exhibitions and art and interpretation, children’s playground and basketball hoops, piano-playing by passer’s by, civilised outdoor food and eateries adjacent, popular coffee and food bars there - whose economic livelihoods are guaranteed by the presence of the ASB headquarter building and its workers, plenty of places to sit and stare, and a working waterfront with fishing boats, ferries, and marine industry, with more to come.

How this contrasts with Auckland’s dreadful Queen Elizabeth Square, privatised civic spaces on Princes Wharf, threatened public spaces on Queens Wharf, and mismanagement of Quay Street.

You don’t have to look hard for an explanation for these civic failures because they have have one influence in common. They are Auckland’s legacy from the development activities of the Auckland Harbour Board (AHB) and its corporatized offspring known now as Ports of Auckland Limited (POAL).

In 1963 AHB owned the reclaimed land at the foot of Queen Street now occupied by the Downtown Shopping Centre, HSBC Tower and Queen Elizabeth Square which was the public by-product of a successful overseas development tender. Despite objections from the Auckland Architects Association which built a model of the scheme demonstrating the wind and shading effects of the twenty-storey tower formally known as Air New Zealand House, the scheme went ahead largely unchanged. It is ironic that AHB’s prospectus for tenderers stated that: “pedestrian amenity will be a prime objective”.

AHB’s plans for its distinctive octagonal headquarter building on the base of Princes Wharf included paving and pedestrianisation of Quay Street to Queen Street, and from Queen Elizabeth Square across and up Queens Wharf. They also emphasized pedestrian access onto Princes Wharf from Quay Street beneath its headquarters whose first floor was built three stories above the wharf. The plans were granted upon appeal, but subject to the pedestrian areas being constructed “contemporaneously”, and that the building was only to be used as AHB’s HQ. Construction began in 1983, but promised pedestrian amenity never eventuated. AHB moved out after a few years, sublet the building as commercial office-space, and infilled the lower floors of the building, blocking that pedestrian access off Quay Street and onto Princes Wharf.

The development approach adopted later by POAL for Princes Wharf exhibits the same pattern: early proposals included significant public space around the wharf and at the end and a central street shown populated with pedestrians, maritime museum, galleries, a theatre and other public attractions; much of this was gone from plans by the time construction commenced in 1998; and since then a steady sequence of infill and development has been encouraged shading the central street, blocking access to public spaces, and allowing largely uncontrolled parking and traffic movements.

Today POAL still holds property rights around the edges of Queens Wharf which affect its public use, even though the wharf is “owned” by Auckland Council and Central Government, and its grip on other central wharves and surplus waterfront reclaimed land is primarily about delivering on its “successful business” objective.


Auckland stands at a kind of cross roads now. I’m picking that Auckland wants North Wharf on Quay Street, Queens Wharf and Queen Elizabeth Square. It most certainly does not want another Aotea Square, and certainly not another Princes Wharf.

It is time for a successful city – not just a collection of successful businesses – and in significant part that is about developing and managing successful civic spaces.

1 comment:

Nick Marsh said...

excellent analysis Joel- the contrast between Wynyard quarter excitement and Q Eliz Square etc traffic nightmare is so obvious to anyone who walks between them (without getting run over). An even worse example is the Bladerunner transport set up of Brisbane CBD- but at least they have tried to moderate it via the river development, and a pedestrian sector in the CBD which all Aussie cities have done despite retailer protest- we still don't get the message- Queen St and Quay St dies without pedestrianising it.