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

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Street life

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Yesterday's post about Woodward Street made me think about my favourite streets in Wellington. There are many ingredients that go into making a great street: architecture, microclimate, history, the people that frequent it. But, following my pedantic tendency to define things, what exactly is a street?

Wikipedia has a nice definition that captures the difference between a street and a road:
"A street is characterized by the degree and quality of street life it facilitates, whereas a road serves primarily as a through passage for road vehicles or (less frequently) pedestrians. Street performers, beggars, patrons of sidewalk cafés, peoplewatchers, and a diversity of other characters are habitual users of a street; the same people would not typically be found on a road."

In other words, while a road is a way between places, a street is a place in its own right: a place to be. But there's also a spatial component. A street, like a successful urban square, needs a sense of enclosure. A road is essentially one dimensional (a line on the map), but a street should be a three-dimensional volume, defined by near-continuous building frontages on both sides.

Roads vs Streets

That immediately discounts obvious roads such as motorways and other arterial routes, but also disqualifies otherwise pleasant thoroughfares such as Oriental Parade. Many of the "streets" in "SoCo" also fail this test, and it's frustrating to see their continuing domination by car yards and big-box retail with setbacks and surface parking: these could become great streets in time, but this requires developers with more sense of urbanity than we've seen so far.

So, what are my favourites? Cuba Street is an obvious choice: in fact it's so obvious I'll have to pass it by. Courtenay Place is perhaps too wide and low to feel like a well-defined volume, and while Allen and Blair have nice proportions, they too suffer from the Courtenay Quarter's "Bridge and Tunnel" syndrome. Holland and Egmont streets have great potential, with their old brick warehouses, but don't have enough street life at the moment.

View down Lambton QuayLambton Quay has great spatial drama, enhanced by the curve of the old shoreline, but of course it's overrun with suits and chain stores. The council's proposed upgrades might go some way towards making it more pedestrian-friendly, and it may someday look like the great commercial street it deserves to be. Featherston Street is coming along rapidly, and Grey Street has some pleasant sections, but of the secondary streets around here, Woodward Street has the most going for it. On the other hand, Stephen makes a good claim for the oft-forgotten Maginnity Street.

The stretch of Willis Street between Manners and Dixon streets has some lovely features and some great little shops (House of Hank, Quoil, Starfish, Beckon). There are signs that it's bceoming livelier, but I await with anticipation (and a touch of trepidation) to see what the new apartment block and the DoC headquarters will do to the streetscape.

The Left Bank, WellingtonBut I think I'm going to keep coming back to the Left Bank. It could benefit from a little tarting up, but in general I love the ramshackle look of the place, the variety of little businesses, and the transition from a sunny "villagey" atmosphere to dingy urban grime and graffiti. There's also a real sense of community among the shopkeepers here, and you'll often spot the hairdresser having coffee in Offbeat Originals or the jeweller hosing down the cobbles, while kids play cricket against a masking-tape wicket on the back door to Matterhorn.

If we're going to get a proper Asian foodcourt of the sort that Tze Ming Mok prefers, perhaps this would be the best place for it. Satay Kingdom's roti might not quite cut it, but with a couple more (licensed!) outlets, we could have a proper outdoor Food Alley.

So, what's your favourite street in Wellington?


At 3:20 pm, January 17, 2006, Blogger Br3nda of coffee.geek.nz said...

"stretch of Willis Street between Manners and Willis streets"


At 4:19 pm, January 17, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Well spotted! I meant "Manners and Dixon", of course: fixed now.

At 3:45 pm, January 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do have a little crush on Holland street, giant zebra notwithstanding. I'm also a big fan of the little Mountain Safety House cluster on Tory Street, but without an opposing west frontage it's just a more direct route to the Warehouse.

Also, there is a street I like that runs parallel to Aro Street for a short way before ending at Aro park/community centre. Ignoring the giant apartment building at the end, this little street (recently resealed!) has quite some charm and lies just 5 minutes walk from the city. It also, notably, lacks any real architectural cohesion being mostly subdivided sections, townhouses and cheap flats.

Yeung Shing takeaways on the corner, the high volume of foot traffic from Aro valley and the basketball court slash kindergarten carpark at the end make for an interesting, if almost strictly residential, little city street.

On the subject of basketball courts. I was meandering to work on Friday and thought I'd duck through behind that church on Taranaki street (with 3-yearly voting facilities, I discovered in September) and there is what seems to be a public basketball court but which may in fact be owned by some sort of religia. (/not the most interesting of sidebars)

My favourite street though, is actually two streets and a big open intersection. It is the stretch from Mercer Street, along Wakefield to the bottom of Cuba Street. It's busy, has great buildings (The Lido, Town Hall, the regular old ones between the corner and the James Cook Hotel(?) and he old Dominion building, which is one of my favourites in the city) and an impressive termination at Willis Street (the Majestic centre frontage)and lots of trees. Plus Civic Square (a street in its own right I suppose) is accessible from both ends. The only disappointment is where it peters out at the Michael Fowler Centre and opens to a carpark, a bridge and BP Roadmaster.

Fun times.

Honourable mentions:
Give my love to Woodward, Bond and Left Bank Arcade and Egmont Street (even though it's windy as fuck and inexplicably gated off at times)

At 4:45 pm, January 19, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Holland St could be great, especially if they make more of the connection through to Taranaki St. That little basketball court is great: it feels like one of those inner-city New York streetcorners with kids hanging out. One of the things I dislike about the Sanctum development (apart from the fact that it blocked off another mid-block connection) is that it ripped up a very established old ivy along the wall.

The bit of Tory that you're talking about has some great buildings and shops (Schoc, Meat on Tory, that imitation Art Nouveau one) on the eastern side, but the entire western side is a disaster. Hopefully something will fill in the lower bit next to Wholly Bagels and give it a bit of life and definition.

Palmer St is quite pleasant, but it feels a bit too much like Christchurch for me: all those Arts & Crafts houses! Apart from the Aro Park end, that old 60s tower block is my favourite bit: not great urbanism (set back from the street etc) but great detailing on the separate lift tower.

Yep, that stretch of Wakefield has some great buildings. The Racing Conference Building (above the Lido) is one of my favourites in Wellington. The Umbrella Park apartment building (above Felix) is one of the best contemporary apartment buildings and fits in nicely with the older ones next to it. And the masses of trees around Lido and Nui look wonderful. If only the council building and Town Hall had more active frontages on that side, it could be truly great.

Oh, and Egmont St is sometimes gated because it's not actually a public street: it's on private land.

At 12:56 pm, January 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

^correction: Majestic Centre frontage is at the end of Bond rather than Mercer.

At 3:58 pm, January 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seeing that Left Bank was the first place I lived in Wellington; I should be stoked that it's won such an accolade (i.e. Tom's Thumbs Up). However, without proposing an alternative, I'd have to say I'm not sure it deserves it.

Firstly, 'could benefit from a little tarting up' is generous. It's scrappy and dirty, not (in my mind) in a charming way - although I love the mosaic idea. Stepping over freshly squeezed piss every morning is not my ideal start to the day !

Also I think you're stretching the definition of street here - I'd argue that a mall should be distinct to a street (as street is to road); especially a mall that clearly goes nowhere, and in fact is more like a square (or a dirty courtyard).

That's another of my complaints about Left Bank - the dire state of the non-Cuba St exits and entries - dark, dirty and un-appealing.

On the positive side, Left Bank clearly has potential so let's hope these posts inspire people to tart it up to do justice to the rating of Tom's Favourite Wellie Street.


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