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

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Urban Eye: Waitangi Park

Environmental experiments bring interest to a not-so-urban park. (Note: see here for a more recent view of the park design.).

Urbanism +2
In addition to streets, every city needs public spaces of various sizes and descriptions, ranging from pocket parks and tiny squares through to major parks and green belts. But for an urban space to work, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for it to be "open". In fact, the inverse is usually the case: the most successful urban spaces are often compact, enclosed and highly detailed (Midland Park is an excellent local example). There are no hard-and-fast rules, and the most important determinants of form must be context and intended use.

Large green open spaces can be very appropriate in the suburbs, where sports fields are required for the large number of children. But this is the CBD, and it needs a more urban approach. One of the defining qualities of cities is that they thrive on interdependence, overlap, heterogeneity and the blurring of uses and character at a fine level of detail. However, it looks like the council has caved in to the anti-urbanist lobby and left much of the site as a large (6150 square metres), featureless open space. I appreciate that a large flat space is useful for occasional large events, but I'm afraid that such a large space will be 90% empty 90% of the time. It needs some central or dividing element to give it definition and intimacy, and with a bit more effort I'm sure the designers could have added such an element that could be covered or removed for events.

What this area really needs is more buildings to join Chaffers Wharf (the former Herd St building) to the city. Otherwise the vitality of Courtenay Place and Blair St will dissipate as it tries to cross the wide open spaces, leaving Chaffers Wharf isolated. There are some new buildings planned, but they are generally in the wrong places. They need to lead through to the water, and perhaps shield the Cable St and Oriental Parade edges from traffic. The "transition building" might provide some shelter and a modicum of an active edge, but it's too far from Chaffers Wharf and will require pedestrians to walk across a carpark then up and down stairs if they are to walk beside it to the water.

I suspect that one of the reasons that this design won the competition is that it is designed for adaptability. There are very few use zones of the park that are "hard coded" and defined by structures or significant landscaping. The "city edge activity zones", such as market/carparks, skate parks and playgrounds, could easily evolve over time, and even be built upon at a later date (Shhh! Don't tell Waterfront Watch!).

The designers have certainly attempted to cater for diversity of use (they are perhaps even trying to cater for too many competing uses), but these are mostly relegated to different "activity zones". There are some attempts at creating multi-functioning urban elements, such as raising the Chinese Garden over a covered carpark, and setting aside some of the surface parking for a weekend market. But what a pity that in these examples, one of the functions is always "carpark"!

While I believe that the scale and structure of the park are not appropriate for an urban area, the plan as a whole will be a great improvement over what is currently a shabby and underused part of the city. Apart from a few desultory grass berms, some sad-looking shrubs and a skate park, there's nothing here despite a few decaying sheds and a vast, windswept carpark that for too long has been allowed to separate the city from the sea. While I'd personally prefer a dense, mixed-use urban quarter to a large park, I think that the designers have done a good job of steering between irreconcilable pressure groups, and now I look forward to it happening.

Aesthetics +2
A lot of effort has gone in to providing a clear ordering structure to the park, by emphasising or extending existing linear elements and defining sub-areas through use of materials. The linear wetlands and graving dock will bring the waterfront inland and provide more water's edge, which is most appropriate for a waterfront park. But despite the best efforts of talented designers, the gardens and green field will look achingly empty unless they are animated by people.

I'm worried that the "wind garden" next to the Chaffers Wharf building will end up too barren, sad and scrawny, and if it ends up fenced off like the karaka grove at Taranaki Wharf it will be a pointless waste of space. I have the same concerns about the "hanging garden" between the elevated Chinese Garden and the carpark/garden. It's a wonderful idea, but if the planting is insufficiently maintained it will look tatty and depressing. So much depends upon the detail and quality of execution that it's hard to judge it at this stage.

It's also difficult to assess the visual character of the new buildings, given that detailed design work is yet to be done. The exception is the "Boathouses" apartment addition on the seaward side of the Chaffers Wharf building. From current renderings, this looks to be uncommonly good: its layered and faceted form should be much more exciting than the usual rectilinear lumps that pass for apartment buildings. The "transition building" should effectively reduce the looming bulk of Te Papa, but the park side of it will have to be well detailed for it to have a positive visual impact.

Environment +4
The only really exciting element of Waitangi Park is the environmental initiatives embodied in its design. As far as I'm aware, this is the first true example in Wellington of "daylighting": restoring a culverted stream to the surface. Waitangi Stream has been reduced to a stormwater drain, but this project will bring it the surface to feed stylised "wetlands". These will act as natural filters, removing pollutants before delivering the water via weirs to the harbour, while also recalling the long-vanished Waitangi Lagoon. Not only that, but the power required to raise the buried stream to the surface will be provided by small wind turbines: perhaps this is just a token gesture towards renewable energy sources, but it's welcome nonetheless.

While I'm always averse to surface carparking in the city, at least they will feature porous surfaces and bioretention to reduce runoff and pollution. These should be compulsory for any surface or rooftop carparking.

Social +2
The anti-urbanists believe that any new buildings on the waterfront will drive out recreational users. But in reality, the only new buildings will be built on what are currently roads or carparks, so all of the promenades and walkways currently used by walkers, joggers and cyclists will be retained. The new uses of this area (housing, retail, entertainment and food) won't crowd out the existing uses, but co-exist with and even enhance them.

Although the Chaffers Wharf apartments are among the most expensive in the city, there have been some steps taken towards ensuring that the public space around them is not privatised. It's good that the ground floor will be reserved for publicly-accessible uses (retail etc), although there's always the danger that, if the building's isolation from the city causes these businesses to struggle, they may be replaced by offices. It's also a good sign that the building will have a public viewing area and sculpture garden at the top, since usually the best views are reserved for the well-off residents.

Skateboarders and produce markets are among the few existing users of what will become the main park area. They have been catered for in the new design, but only just. The areas of the new park set aside for these uses might be in a better state of repair, but that are much smaller than the areas they currently use, and far from the level of amenity that could have been provided with a bit more creativity and dedication.

Another positive social feature of the development is the effort that's gone into expressing the various cultures of Wellington. Māori culture will be represented through waka landing and pōwhiri sites, as well as the name of the park itself. Chinese and Pacific Island cultures, which have not much been refelected in civic architecture until now, will be visible through their respective gardens. The graving dock will recall European history, and contemporary urban culture will be expressed through graffiti walls, basketball courts and the skate park.


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