Story: City public spaces

Page 5. Beaches, shorelines and waterfronts

All images & media in this story

Beaches and shorelines

Beaches are among the most popular public spaces in cities and towns. Every summer bathing beaches – such as Nelson’s Tāhunanui, Dunedin’s St Clair, and Auckland’s Takapuna beaches – are invaded by thousands of people in search of sun and surf. Recreational fishing has been a public use of the shoreline ever since the start of European settlement.

Some beaches are important public spaces all year round. Christchurch’s New Brighton beach was used for horse and motorcycle races as well as sea bathing. It boasted New Zealand’s longest public pier from 1894 until its demolition in 1965. A new pier, incorporating a public library, opened in 1998. Wellington’s centrally located Oriental Bay is a favourite haunt of swimmers, lunchtime joggers and people watchers.

Pania pinched

The 2005 theft of a statue of the Māori maiden Pania from the Napier’s Marine Parade shocked citizens. The statue had stood on the foreshore for 51 years and, like the city’s art deco buildings, was a Napier icon. A week later the statue was found at a local property and securely fixed back onto its plinth, to the relief of locals. A man was imprisoned for a year for the theft.

A few cities made a particular feature of their shoreline to encourage visitors and tourists. After the 1931 earthquake Napier’s Marine Parade was rebuilt with gardens, fountain, sound shell and memorial clock. Timaru’s Caroline Bay also has a sound shell, and hosts a summer carnival and rock concerts.

Harbours and waterfronts

In the 19th and early 20th centuries wharves were well-used public spaces, where people could socialise, fish, or watch the movement of freight. As ports got busier, access was restricted during working hours for public safety.

From the 1970s the widespread use of containers for shipping freight changed the character of ports. Freight handling was shifted to new areas, where tall straddle carriers moved containers to and from giant cranes towering over the ships. Older wharves became deserted, and their once-busy electric cranes were removed for scrap.

In 1989 the management of ports shifted from publicly elected harbour boards to companies, usually owned or part-owned by city or regional councils. Commercial priorities led the new companies to prohibit public access altogether. In Auckland and Wellington this created demand for more public space on the older wharf areas – located next to central business districts.

Waterfront writing

Visitors to Wellington’s waterfront can enjoy sculpture of a literary nature. A series of concrete plaques quote extracts from poems and novels by writers with a strong Wellington connection. The plaques are often in surprising places – one is set amongst rocks, while another rises up from the water.

Wellington’s waterfront

In the early 1990s Frank Kitts Park – originally opened in 1976 – was redeveloped and the City-to-Sea Bridge, which links Civic Square to the waterfront, was completed. Old offices and warehouses were converted into apartments, a museum, galleries and eateries, and work began on a new national museum, Te Papa (The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa). Various concept plans for new waterfront office and apartment buildings were also drawn up.

The 1995 opening of the Queens Wharf retail and events centre raised public anxiety about the privatisation of public space. Critics mobilised to block the erection of new buildings and promote further public spaces.

Auckland’s waterfront

Auckland’s waterfront transformation was hastened by the city’s hosting of the 1999–2000 and 2003–4 America’s Cup yachting regattas in the redeveloped Viaduct Basin. It became the site of new apartments, bars, restaurants and water-edge promenades. Apartments, restaurants and a Hilton Hotel were also constructed on nearby Princes Wharf. The area became a centre of the city’s nightlife. In 2009 a development plan for the area from Westhaven Marina to the container port – combining public and private spaces – was being created.

Smaller cities and towns

Due to their small populations and distance from city centres, the ports of Christchurch (Lyttelton) and Dunedin (Port Chalmers) did not develop in the same way. But some smaller cities have followed Wellington and Auckland’s lead. New apartments, cafés and restaurants have been built in the old ports of Nelson (Port Nelson) and Napier (Ahuriri), magnets for recreational fishers, the café crowd and amblers. In Tauranga, Whakatāne, and New Plymouth – which had long turned their backs on the sea – new walkways and landscaping made their waterfronts accessible and attractive public spaces.

How to cite this page:

Geoffrey Rice, 'City public spaces - Beaches, shorelines and waterfronts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/city-public-spaces/page-5 (accessed 23 October 2019)

Story by Geoffrey Rice, published 11 Mar 2010