WellUrban

Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pass mark for the park


Among the various items on the agenda of the recent Waterfront Development Subcommittee meeting was a review of Waitangi Park. There are five separate PDFs to download there, including a survey of park users and an interesting quantitative study of which sections of the park were being used and when, but the guts of the report is a large tabular Design Quality Audit. The review is generally very favourable, complete with all the expected buzzwords ("Innovatively layered and multifaceted cultural, aesthetic, functional and ecological systems", "Rich contribution to the civic life of Wellington"), but some of the negative points that are raised are quite revealing.

Dead tree at Waitangi ParkThe actual organic elements of the park seem to have been handled rather poorly. Many of the trees have died, some due to vandalism but others due to the microclimate being even less clement than was planned for. The oak trees have fared particularly badly, though part of that seems to have been caused by an unseemly haste to get things ready for the deadline: "Many of the trees that have done poorly were planted in the summer as part of preparations for the 2006 Arts Festival. This was not a planting time best suited for horticultural requirements." Elsewhere, the audit states that "plant material such as the Kowhai which is lost or damaged needs to be replaced as it is spatially and environmentally important," and I certainly hope that this advice is taken seriously.

Poor drainage and tiny waharoa at Waitangi ParkIn my earlier comments on things that could be improved in the park, I mentioned the drainage problems at the northern edge of the field, but it looks like the compaction due to Festival events was not the only cause of this. Among other things, the audit mentions that "value-engineering led to omission of construction of a drain along edge leading to poor drainage." It appears that "value-engineering" is used here as a particularly odious euphemism for "short-sighted panicky cost-cutting", and it appears depressingly often throughout the report.

Many of the cultural, historical and artistic elements originally planned had also been postponed or scaled down for the same reasons. These include the Graving Dock interpretation (botanical information blasted into the stepping planks), archaeology boxes, wind screens, Writers' Walk, Cable Corner (shoreline artwork) and waharoa (which the auditors agrees "is low (a safety issue) and visually out of scale"). While it's disappointing that these haven't arrived yet, in some ways it's good that the main park has been allowed to settle down first: there's a lot going on in the park, and if all of that had been delivered in one go it might have been hard to take in. As it is, the delay not only gives the artists a chance to get things right (rather than rushing things like the oak trees), it gives us something more to look forward as the park evolves. I agree with the authors, though, when they caution that these need to be executed in a way that is consistent with the original vision for the park, rather than treating the park as a dumping ground for random artworks.

Many of the other niggles in the report appear to have been rectified since it was written, and the gradual opening up of the Chaffers Dock complex is doing wonders for the levels of activity around the clock. Until the John Wardle and UN Studio buildings are built, the park will nevertheless remain a bit drab and nebulous around the edges. There's still no definite timeline for these, though, and combined with the immaturity and ill-health of the trees, this means a shortage of not only activity and spatial definition but shelter and shade. The report suggests a temporary "built shade structure/kiosk" on the western side of the park until these issues are fixed, and I heartily agree. How about a series of temporary architectural gems along the lines of the Serpentine Gallery pavilions?

It's also interesting to read the quantitative usage study to see which parts of the park are actually popular. I've taken the liberty of rearranging some of the graphs in that study so that they have the same vertical scale, and they show some very strong patterns of use across three moderately clement days in May:

Usage patterns observed in Waitangi ParkAccording to this, Waitangi Park could perhaps be described as a popular skate park and playground, linked by reasonably popular promenades, and with a big empty paddock in the middle. The fact that there only seems to be about 16 hours a week when there are more than ten people on the entire field seems to back up my very early prediction that "such a large space will be 90% empty 90% of the time". Even on a pleasant weekday lunchtime, any one of Chaffers Dock's cafés will often attract more people than all 6,000 square metres of grass.

I'm not saying that the field is a complete waste of space and should have been filled in. It's a vital venue for large events (however infrequent), and I agree with the auditors that "although there are times where fewer users are observed, value, as an experience of space, remains". What it does tell me, though, is that those who think that there's not enough grassed area in the park, or that the waterfront is crying out for more green open spaces, are not backed up by actual demand. While the park will definitely be improved by the eventual growth of some taller trees, with the softening that will bring to the harder landscape elements, it is exactly those latter areas (derided as "concrete wasteland" by Waterfront Watch) that are most popular.

11 Comments:

At 6:33 am, September 05, 2007, Blogger David said...

>What it does tell me, though, is that those who think that there's not enough grassed area in the park, or that the waterfront is crying out for more green open spaces, are not backed up by actual demand.

Your conclusion assumes that those who want more green spaces want them to walk on. It is quite possible that people think they look nice.

 
At 8:59 am, September 05, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Your conclusion assumes that those who want more green spaces want them to walk on. It is quite possible that people think they look nice."

Though I do quote with approval the review's statement that the lawn has value "as an experience of space". The Waterfront Watchers certainly do seem to have an aesthetic fetish for paddocks, but they also claim that we're all clamouring for big areas of grass to sit or run around on. Sure, that does happen in the park from time to time, but urban space should be designed so that it can be used and enjoyed in many different ways at many different times.

The amount of flat green area could have been increased by removing the berm around the outside with the "shadows of waka" and benches, but these are exactly the parts of the lawn that are most commonly used. The lawn could have extended all the way across the skatepark, playground and Chaffers Dock building, but to do that because a few people think it looks nicer would hardly have been fair to the much larger number of people who'd much rather ride a skateboard, play basketball or sit at a cafe.

 
At 9:32 am, September 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although the usage survey was undertaked over a weekend in Late May, with max temps of 14-16C, not what I would call ideal conditions to be out and about lounging on the grass.

If they did this survey during summer I suspect it would record more people using the "green"

It is really a summer space

 
At 9:47 am, September 05, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"not what I would call ideal conditions to be out and about lounging on the grass."

That's fairly much "in-between" conditions: not a balmy summer's day, and not a howling wet southerly (like last night). So that, I think, makes it a reasonably fair test of the usage of the space.

"It is really a summer space"

That's partly my point: while it's great to have some spaces that can take advantage of a nice day, we have to ensure that most urban space is usable for more than just a few months a year. Thus, the buildings planned for Sites 1-4 will not only make better use of their own spaces than yet more lawn, they'd bring activity to the rest of the park and surroundings when the sun isn't shining (which is most of the time).

 
At 12:06 pm, September 05, 2007, Blogger Greg said...

One of my coworkers, a climber who lives in Lower Hutt, had been disappointed by the design of the climbing wall. Looking through the report, it seems as if his impression was representative of the *initial* reaction, but that there was a bit of a reworking of the mounts to suit actual climbers. I found that quite heartening to see in the report. I'd be interested in hearing my coworker's re-evaluation to see if he agrees that there was an improvement.

I noticed that the comments regarding in-line skating were primarily from aggressive skaters in the skate park. There seems to be a lack of representation of recreational skaters who'd be using the surrounding spaces. As one, I find having 3 pathways from Oriental Bay around to Taranaki Wharf to be great. The seaward side isn't quite perfect, given that the parking lot is butted right up against the footpath, which introduces a knee-bumper problem.

My only other complaint would be for the stripping on the bridge over the wetland feature. While the tapered part suits cyclists going over the bridge at speed, it's a bit of a hazard to inexperienced skaters.

All told, I think the park area is pretty impressive and once they get the trees growing, it'll be a great space.

 
At 12:14 pm, September 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom: I agree that the completion of the UN building on the carpark will help majorly, originally it was to have been a chinese garden, but the current vacant carpark tends to detract from the open green space. This promised jaw dropper on site 4 will provide a nice transition to Te Papa, rather than the current sudden break.

 
At 4:52 pm, September 05, 2007, Blogger Seamonkey Madness said...

"...we have to ensure that most urban space is usable for more than just a few months a year.

I don't want to compare this to the various parks and heaths in London, where every man, woman and child flocks to them whenever there is the slightest chance it is above dreary ° Celcius.
But its a park, its grass - why not only use it when it's 'summery'?

The only thing they need then is to relax the public liquor ban, add a few of those temporary 'tin-foil' BBQs to the mix, then we've got an awesome public space on our hands. =)

 
At 7:58 pm, September 05, 2007, Anonymous deepred said...

Even with Waitangi Park's green space, some people will never be happy. I'm not the only one to suspect that a certain breakaway faction of McGillicuddies - the one which no longer sees the joke - have infiltrated WW. I'm interested to find out what kind of city they'd like WLG to be modelled on - if they even want it to be a city at all (ie Hobbiton)?

There's no reason why green space can't coexist with concrete & architecture, but such people seem to think never the twain should meet.

That sort of attitude is not much different from the 1960s urban renewal brigade, who mistakenly believed that progress meant asphalting over everything in sight.

 
At 10:52 pm, September 05, 2007, Anonymous LX said...

"That sort of attitude is not much different from the 1960s urban renewal brigade, who mistakenly believed that progress meant asphalting over everything in sight."

Or more to the point building souless tower blocks surrounded by great green paddocks that were meant to liberate the huddled masses from their 'urban slums'.

Lots of "experience of space" but not much community.

 
At 10:15 am, September 06, 2007, Blogger Stephen said...

seamonkey madness: one of the great things about some Auckland parks is the large number of public barbeques, some gas, some wood (with neat stacks of wood from dead trees in the park). They may not be pretty but they are absolute magnets for communities all of kinds, and very well used.

 
At 2:04 pm, September 06, 2007, Blogger Seamonkey Madness said...

Stephen:
Sounds like Auckland has something going for it after all. ;-)

The BBQs I was referring to are the disposable charcoal ones, bought from Sainsbury's etc. - they ran out of them sometimes when it was particularly balmy!

Always went well with a bunch of mates, some beers bought from the local offie and a rugby/football to throw around.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home