Ever since the founding of cities in the 1840s, public spaces have been threatened by private encroachment or sale. Christchurch was originally encircled by town reserves, but by 1858 all but Hagley Park had been sold. This perhaps made citizens more protective of what they had left – an 1868 plan to open a cattle market in Hagley Park created a storm, with opponents successfully petitioning the provincial government to stop the proposal.
Protecting Hagley Park
Some 100 years later Hagley Park was the focus of a new campaign, with activists rallying to stop the construction of an expressway through its middle. Proponents said the road would make the city more efficient by cutting travel times. But others believed the park was the jewel in the crown of Christchurch’s public spaces and a busy road would cause it to lose its lustre.
Opposition flared when bulldozers began stripping the site. The issue dominated the 1971 municipal election. A new council was elected and scuttled the scheme. Alongside a similar anti-motorway campaign in Wellington, which failed to prevent a motorway being driven through the city’s colonial cemetery, the Hagley Park protest showed that citizens would not accept progress at any price.
Protecting Wellington’s waterfront
The movement to protect public spaces came to the fore in the late 1990s when a proposal (Variation 17) to redevelop Wellington’s waterfront with a mixture of public and private spaces drew fierce opposition.
Proponents had a strongly urban vision of people working, living and playing on the waterfront. Apartments, cafés and offices would be built in between newly developed public spaces to create a dynamic and lively environment, seven days a week. Opponents saw the waterfront as a retreat from city bustle and wanted more open space, not less. They formed a lobby group – Waterfront Watch – to stop the proposal.
On 1 February 2000 a fiery protest against Variation 17 filled Wellington’s Town Hall. When the lobby group Waterfront Watch showed a slide of a 10-storey building on Queens Wharf, city councillor Alick Shaw jumped up and shouted: ‘Stop telling lies. The image is an absolute lie.’ He accused opponents of misrepresenting the scheme’s scale – only five-storey buildings were proposed – but was shouted down by laughs and hisses from the crowd. The meeting signalled the end of Variation 17.
Wellington City Council received 2,500 public submissions – the highest ever on a planning issue. Of these, 94% opposed Variation 17. The council retreated and came up with a new proposal that set aside more public space. An area originally set aside for exclusive apartments became the popular Waitangi Park.
In 2009 the Wellington waterfront was still under development. On fine days the waterfront attracted crowds of people; on wet days the large open spaces were deserted. Creating public spaces that attract people rain or shine remains a challenge for designers.
Auckland’s waterfront stadium
In 2006 the government proposed building a new $700 million stadium on Auckland’s waterfront as the main venue for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It was to be near the foot of Queen St and the Britomart Transport Centre, in the central city. The government said such a structure would showcase New Zealand and help Auckland’s goal to become a world-class city.
Aucklanders were strongly divided on the issue: some supporting the government’s aims, while others claimed it was too expensive and would ruin the waterfront. Critics said the site was prime public space which should be accessible all year, not just for the occasional sporting or cultural event. In the end the government caved into mounting opposition to the scheme and went for an alternative proposal to increase capacity and facilities at Eden Park. In 2009 the regional council and the government bought Queens Wharf from the Ports of Auckland. The aim was to create a public spaces – ‘party central’ – for people to congregate during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Balancing public and private spaces
In the early 21st century most cities recognised the importance of public spaces, and the need to protect them from private encroachment or sale. But this was not always clear cut – for example café tables on city footpaths invade public space, but give a sense of vitality to cities.
Moreover, some public spaces are unattractive or unpopular. For example, Queen Elizabeth II Square in Auckland’s Queen Street is windswept and overshadowed by skyscrapers – not an inviting place to linger. It is arguable that sites such as these may be better suited to buildings, public or private.