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

Friday, May 26, 2006


The F69 propeller in the Graving Dock Gardens, Waitangi ParkAs I mentioned earlier in the week, the propeller from F69 has been installed in the Graving Dock Gardens at Waitangi Park, and there's an article about it in today's Dominion Post. Here's a photo of the propeller in place, with the native coastal plantings about half complete. Once these and the Wind Gardens are finished (about the end of next week), the amount of accessible open space will be significantly greater than when the park first opened during the Arts Festival.

Not that the park is exactly overcrowded as it is. The promenades, skate park and children's playground are busy most of the time, but even on a pleasant weekday lunchtime, the large green field was nearly deserted:

Waitangi Park field
Yet Waterfront Watch continue to insist that the adjacent spaces earmarked for new buildings should instead be used as "open space" that we're supposed to be desparately short of. If this large open space is empty so much of the time, wouldn't it make sense to use the surrounding areas for a mixture of buildings and more intimate public spaces, complete with shelter and public activity?

I know that the field is sometimes much more popular, and that we need a space this size for special events, but even at its busiest (the Fat Freddy's Drop concert during the Arts Festival) it wasn't completely packed, and that was with a large part of the field taken up by tents! That says to me that the field is about the right size, and that the nearby sections of the city would serve the public better by creating a range of spatial experiences to complement the broad openness of the field.

There's a reference to this in the current issue of The Listener. The lead article (not online) looks at urban design and development issues in all New Zealand's major cities, and portrays Waterfront Watch as "the public voice" saving Wellington from rapacious developers. Lindsay Shelton is quoted as saying "Waitangi Park is a big, open extravanganza, but its openness is going to be destroyed by the big buildings they're going to put in beside it". Leaving aside the question as to whether a handful of 3-5 story buildings at the edges would have much impact on such a large space, it ignores the question of whether such openness is actually desirable or appropriate in a city that gains its special character from compactness and verticality rather than wide-open spaces. So a letter seemed in order (update: published 5 June 2006):
Ian Athfield is right: Wellington owes a lot to its "historically strong edges which haven't yet eroded". This has limited sprawl and created a CBD that is compact, mixed-use and relatively sustainable, and it is this density and diversity that gives us the buzz of a much bigger city.

Yet Waterfront Watch wants these qualities kept away from the waterfront. You misrepresent the debate by describing it as a struggle "between citizens who want more public space ... and developers eyeing the returns". There are plenty of ordinary Wellingtonians who want the waterfront to be part of the city, with all the complexity and variety of uses that that implies.

Of course public space is vital, but the quality of urban space is not measured in square metres. It is a function of good design, appropriate location, shelter and active edges, and that requires a judicious balance of buildings and space, not an unqualified "openness". Wellington's Midland Park and Cuba Mall are popular because they are surrounded by buildings, not despite them.

Waitangi Park is well-designed and innovative, and popular while the sun shines, but often empty otherwise. Doubling its size would produce little public benefit, whereas the buildings proposed for the adjacent carparks would bring activity, shelter and spectacular architecture to our beautiful but under-utilised waterfront.


At 3:59 pm, May 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written letter Tom, I was reading that Listener article and was thinking the exact same thing!


At 8:40 pm, May 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's already too much open space, in Waitangi Park. Personally, I dislike many aspects of the park's design. There needs to be more shelter, and more somewhat enclosed and intimate areas better suited for groups of people to sit and socialise. The wide open field should be surrounded by features which provide shelter, seating, and so forth - the different levels and raised garden things in midland park being the perfect example. The current seating doesnt seem well sheltered or appealing.

More trees and bushes, and features with some height to them would be better, in my opinion - it all seems far too flat to me. The last thing we need is more of the same.

At the moment, I have no need or desire to walk out into the middle of the field. The bigger problem is that I have no desire to spent any amount of time on the perimeter of it either. It's just somewhere to pass through.

I do think that the skate park is a good and obviously popular feature, and the playground looks great. What they've done with the stream is also nice.

It's such a shame that the Sky from Above exhibition had to go. If a similar feature could be permanently erected in the same fashion, I think it'd help a lot.

At 8:43 pm, May 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Earth from above, rather. Whatever.

In any case, I might stretch my meagre student budget to get the current listener edition and perhaps write a letter too.

At 7:42 pm, May 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being the former head of TNVZ news is probably not a disadvantage when it comes to getting space in The Listener. Let's hope they publish your counterpoint Tom.

At 7:42 pm, May 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 8:05 am, May 29, 2006, Blogger Hadyn said...

Careful with the trees.

It was recently pointed out to me how good it was having the skatepark at the edge by New World, in bright light, with lots of passing cars, where everyone can see what's going on.

The lack of trees in the park mean that no one can be dragged into it (easily) without being seen, and no places to hide.

Albert Park in Auckland it beautiful during the day with it's giant old trees. But at night it's downright creepy (and at times actually dangerous) to walk through.


Some more shelter might be good though. Wellington doesn't exactly have a tropical climate.

At 8:13 am, May 29, 2006, Blogger Hadyn said...

Actually, it would interesting to get the Auckland perspective on "open spaces on the waterfront" idea. For many years they had that. It was called The Docks.

Now they have building crammed in there and the place has many more people.

At 10:58 am, May 29, 2006, Blogger Tom said...


I tend to agree. Waitangi Park feels very flat and barren to me, with not enough shelter, verticality or division of spaces. I think it's well structured and inventively detailed, but the "necessity" (as defined by the design brief) for a large open field meant that it was always going to be hard to maintain the intimacy of more compact spaces.

I said as much when I reviewed the original plans, but I think that the designers did a much better job of articulating the edges of the field than I had anticipated. The combination of raised "dunes" with cut-out "Shadows of Waka" and benches helps the edges to infiltrate the open space, and these areas are moderately well-used because they have a variety of sunny and sheltered aspects. Once Area 1 of the park is "finished", I must do a full updated review and give Megan Wraight more credit than I did originally!

It won't always be quite so exposed, though. I think that the wind garden (west of Chaffers Dock) will have a bit more shelter and intimacy, and Megan assured ne that the graving dock garden, because it's lower than its surroundings, will be relatively sheltered. And it's hard to judge how things will look once the trees have fully grown. The petanque court and the spaces either side of the skate park could be just the sort of shaded, intimate social space that you're after. I'm no expert on the growth rate of trees, but I'd imagine that it would be at least ten years before they're established enough to give some shade and visual definition. That's the problem with landscape architecture, I guess: it's never "finished" until nature's done its work!

There are a couple of other reasons for the lack of foliage. Firstly, as Hadyn points out, the brief requires a lot of visibility to remove potential lurking opportunities. Secondly, the planting is mostly supposed to reflect what you'd find naturally in Wellington's coastal environment, and the low, scrubby plants in the graving dock are more typical of this sort of exposed coastline.

It looks like the Chaffers Dock - OPT - Wardle Buildings cluster will create a sequence of smaller spaces with more activity and shelter, so that's perhaps where you'll find the Midland Park style of space. But not if Waterfront Watch have anything to do with it! As far as they're concerned, the more windswept, deserted paddocks, the better.

At 3:34 pm, May 31, 2006, Blogger David said...

Part of the success of Midland Park is, IMHO, that the buildings merge gradually in to the park... in the form of the outdoor cafe tables and seating, and the large entranceway to the newsagent. I don't think it would be so good if the interface between inside and outside was better defined.


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