Ever since the Town Hall was built on that odd triangle between converging streets half way up Queen St Auckland has failed to successfully find an important central location that can be considered its spiritual locus. A civic heart: A public space for those collective experiences; celebrations, protests, that everyone automatically understands is the right and fitting place. Unusually Auckland was poorly served by our Victorian and Edwardian city builders in this regard. Their great works are all distributed and largely disconnected; Albert Park, CPO, Town Hall, and Art Gallery/Library. Significantly Auckland has never really been sure where its heart is.

Auckland Plan 1841 Felton Mathew
Auckland Plan 1841 Felton Mathew

Felton Mathew, the city’s first surveyor, saw the ridge of Hobson St as the commercial and administrative centre, so proposed two fine and central squares to interrupt the north south flow with ‘place’ there.  No doubt he was keen to get the great and good away from the waterway of Waihorotiu in the Queen Street gully; he placed the quality residences on the opposing ridge, about where Albert Park came to be. Incidentally his roots in the city of Bath with its fine curving Georgian terraces is clearly visible in this scheme.

Only a few parts of this plan eventuated, Waterloo Quadrant being the most obvious, and the main affairs of the city gradually congealed along Queen St, especially once the open sewer that Waihorotui became was finally piped in the 1890s [“That abomination, the Ligar Canalis still a pestiferous ditch, the receptacle of every Imaginable filth, bubbling in the noonday sun”]. But also up Shortland St, the city’s best professional address and then to Princess St to the grand city houses of the early magnates.

Queen Street welcome US fleet August 1908
Queen Street welcome US fleet August 1908

The inter-bellum years brought even more dispersal of public building with the placement of the Museum in the Domain and the disaster of moving the Railway Station out of town without  building the proposed inner-city passenger tunnel. The attempts at civic placemaking in the Modern era gave us the mess we are now trying to undo: Aotea and QE II Squares.

These have always been soulless places that have failed to earn their hoped for roles as loved and functioning public spaces. The first a formless mess leading to a building with all the utility and charm of a 1970s high school science block; relentlessly horizontal and without ceremony or focal point. The Town Hall itself is so busy sailing down the old stream bed of Waihorotui and opening a-midships on the other side that it may as well not be there [can’t we make some kind of use of the bow of this ship? Open a cafe onto the Square through some of those blind openings….?]. Aotea is better now than it’s ever been, after much rebuilding, but is still inherently unable to inspire.

And QE II suffers from containment by buildings of Olympian blandness, that anyway offer nothing but mall food or the blank wall of office blocks, add to that it’s famously shaded, hideously paved, sorrowfully treed, and otherwise peperpotted with meaningless objects and host to that awful and useless over-scaled glass and steel inverted L ….. frankly that it is mainly used by tradies to park on almost elevates the place.

The theme that unites these sad attempts at public space is that they were both built at the full blaze of the auto-age. Both are defined by the dominating theme of vehicles first. Aotea is of course just the roof of a garage, how could anyone be expected to use a public square with being able to park right there? The other disaster that still defines and keeps the square sub-optimal is the severing ring road of Mayoral Drive that cuts it off on two sides. There is no way that the small amount of carriageway be taken over for people without expanding roadspace nearby first.

Queens St from Town Hall Nov 1963
Queens St from Town Hall Nov 1963

QE II Square has a more chequered history. When the CPO was an important building of state [built on the site of Auckland’s first train station] it was a busy wide street, first with trams and general traffic:

CPO 1920s
CPO 1920s

Then just general traffic:

CPO Lower Queen
CPO Lower Queen

Then with the amalgamation of the opposite Downtown site in the 1970s the street in front of the CPO was pedestrianised. Great history of this process here, a window onto the forces that formed the places of this period. And this was the result:

CPO 1980s
CPO 1980s

The idea of a public plaza in front of the CPO was logical: It is directly in front of the large and traditional looking public building, like in any European city the old CPO grand and important enough like a ‘Rathaus’ in a northern European city, or, at a pinch, the cathedrals and churches of southern and central Europe, that provide the focus for great public squares.

Yet this space was forgettable; it didn’t work. The great problem was that over the whole period of its existence the importance of the CPO declined right down to closure. So the potential of this space for meaning and centrality could never get going. Additionally it was designed like a suburban shopping centre, just like the new mall on the otherside too which didn’t help, but really its great problem is that it was pretty much nowhere. So its loss wasn’t mourned when the buses were returned as part of the invention of Britomart Station. Even though all we were left with was the terrible sunless end of the Square as it is now.

Which is ironic really because the kind of civic space that I am arguing Auckland critically lacks needs to be the placed at the front door of some kind of busy and important public building like a Train Station. Because now there are people, lots and lots of people, using that grand old pile. All thanks to the ever growing success of the revived passenger rail network. This is what works in those European cities that Aucklanders love to visit, as shown in Warren’s post about northern Europe. This space is at last in the right place to become the locus for all kinds of beginnings; celebrations, protests, welcomes.

It’s a good shape too: There’s a standard rule of thumb about building height relative to its approaching horizontal space that says a good place to start is if these are roughly equal. And it looks to me like the old CPO is as about as high as Lower Queen St is wide. And if Auckland doesn’t start, in every sense, at the sea at the bottom of Queen St then I don’t what it is. The fact that it isn’t large I feel will be an advantage most of the time; it’ll never be empty, and for those big occasions the plan is to close Quay St to both expand the space and complete the connection with the water’s edge.

This plaza should be able to succeed as the ‘Marae’ to Britomart’s ‘Wharenui’. And, for big processions actually link all the way up to Aotea Square, especially when we do the thinkable and get the cars out of the rest of flat section of Queen St.

So the plan is a good one:

1. to repair the western street edge of Lower Queen St with activated retail entrances

2. insert new streets through the Downtown site [not internal mall spaces; at least one proper open air public street]

3. return Britomart’s forecourt to being a public square

4. while expanding and improving the water’s edge public spaces

All at the cost of the current QEII Square.

However there is one vital condition to the proposals as set out in the Framework process that I believe has to be properly dealt with in order for any of this to work. Summed up in one word: Buses.

Where do the buses go? We are told Lower Albert St, all through Britomart, including Galway and Tyler Sts, and Customs St. This just doesn’t add up on any level. It isn’t desirable, already the narrow streets behind the Station are degraded by the numbers of buses turning, stopping, idling. The new plaza in front of Britomart will be reduced in utility and attractiveness by buses exiting Galway and Tyler Streets, even if they no longer cross in front of the old CPO itself. Lower Albert St just can’t that many stops.

This whole scheme, in my view, can only work if there is a seriously effective solution to the bus problem, which means a proper station somewhere proximate, as well as a hard headed approach to terminating suburban bus routes at the new bus/train interchange stations like Panmure, Otahuhu, New Lynn, and Mt Albert, etc, in order to maximise access to the city while limiting the huge volumes of buses dominating inner city streets. Howick and Eastern services, for example, could go on to Ellerslie from Panmure then across town instead of into the city. Or simply return to the south east to increase frequency massively on their core route having dropped off passengers to the city at Panmure Station.

Helsinki [pop: 600k], for example, terminated its city bus routes at stations when it built it’s metro system in the 1980s, as well as making an underground bus station for those services that remain:

Many of the buses operating in eastern Helsinki act as feeder lines for the Helsinki Metro. Nearly all other routes have the other end of their lines in the downtown near the Helsinki Central railway station. Such exceptions are present as dedicated lines operating directly from a suburb to another past the centre

Britomart and the improving rail system helps take both cars and buses off the road it will be a long time before the CRL is open and we can use the spatial efficiency of underground rail to replace exponentially more surface vehicles. And even longer again before a rail line to the Shore will be built, and even then there will still be a need for buses.
Because we have refused to invest in permanent solutions to city access like the many underground rail proposals over the years it has now become urgent to get much more serious about how we manage the inevitable boom in bus demand. This issue was disguised for years by the decline of the Central City, or at least its failure to thrive; strangled by motorways, and deadened by street traffic as it has been over my life time. But now its revival is thankfully strong and clearly desirable, the City and the State will have to, literally, dig deep, to keep it moving. After all, all New Zealand needs a thriving Auckland and:
‘Transportation technologies have always determined urban form’
-Economist Ed Glaeser The Triumph of the City P12
While addressing these near term street level issues it is important to keep a thought for an ideal longer term outcome. Here is the kind of treatment that could  ultimately work well for central city Auckland.
Shared Space wit modern Light Rail, Angers, France
Shared Space with modern Light Rail, Angers, France
This could be Queen St, but is only possible once the high capacity and high frequency of both the longer distance rail network is running underground, and the widespread reach of the bus system is similarly properly supported in the City Centre. This type of system is for local distribution not commuting.
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27 comments

  1. That last photo evokes memories of my first teenage ventures into the big bad city from the peaceful suburbs (by bus of course). I remember the first time I saw the square some cad had done the classic trick of dumping dishwashing liquid into the fountain to make the whole thing a mountain of froth.

    If they are going to do this again they must revisit why the square never worked in the first place. Sun and frontage should be key considerations.

    Eagle eyed map readers will spot Waterloo Quadrant in the early plan. Ever wondered about the strange name, well it was originally supposed to actually be one of four quadrants of a great circle around the barracks/government precinct that latter became the university. Coburg Quadrant also survived for some time until it was renamed Kitchener St in the late 70s, I think.

  2. “at least one proper open air public street”
    Why? On a rainy day (like we’ve had in abundance this winter) I’d rather keep dry walking through a covered mall than an open air street. And if that street runs east-west behind the HSBC building, then it’s going to be a shady windswept place. “Atrium on Takutai” demonstrates this failing – it acts as a funnel for easterly winds, which howl through it in a most unpleasant manner.

    Other than that, I like the idea of Lower Queen St being transformed into a “gateway” public square, linking the waterfront and transport nodes to the main commerce area. 🙂

    1. Well it won’t be behind the HSBC building, but anyway, this isn’t Montreal or even Phoenix, there’s not that much weather to so afraid of in Auckland: 40 above or below. Furthermore there’ll also be an internal option as well simply because they’ve got to give access to the entire site for retail to get the best return.

      No the argument for a street is so you can remain a citizen between these public places and not have to become a customer. Subtle perhaps, but that is the difference between an urban place, on the street, and a private one, in a mall. It also means 24hour access, movement not controlled by a private operator.

    2. Well, Auckland has no shortage of covered malls. Meanwhile, I’d sooner walk a nice street in the rain. Especially in summer. Glorious.

      1. Sitting here in my office with wet feet from having to walk in the torrential rain this morning, “glorious” isn’t the first word to spring to mind. 😉

        Is there sufficent space in the Downtown block to create a “proper open air public street”? How wide would it need to be? How do we ensure it is safe at night? Could it compete with a pedestrianised Quay St?

        The CPO is bounded by Tyler and Galway St – how many people choose to walk along those late at night, rather than go through the CPO (when open) or down Customs St instead?

        1. “Is there sufficent space in the Downtown block to create a “proper open air public street”?”
          Of course, a street was removed to create the downtown block. You could get two or three streets in and still be no smaller than other blocks around Auckland.

          “How wide would it need to be?”
          About as wide as Tyler or Galway Sts presumably

          “How do we ensure it is safe at night?”
          Same way we ensure the thousands of other streets and roads in Auckland are safe at night.

          “Could it compete with a pedestrianised Quay St?”
          Why would it? Different uses, different markets. Will every other street in town have to compete with Quay St?

          “The CPO is bounded by Tyler and Galway St – how many people choose to walk along those late at night, rather than go through the CPO (when open) or down Customs St instead?”
          Personally I walk through Tyler or Galway if I am going past because it is most direct and faster. Not sure what you think is in these lanes that isn’t in the CPO.

        2. “How wide would it need to be?”
          > About as wide as Tyler or Galway Sts presumably.
          Not wide enough to avoid being shaded, just like Tyler St. Will need careful design to avoid making it cold and windy, and attract people to dwell and give it a Vulan Lane vibe.

          “How do we ensure it is safe at night?”
          > Same way we ensure the thousands of other streets and roads in Auckland are safe at night.
          Are any safe at night? Not enough lighting and/or not enough people on most of our streets and roads.

          “Could it compete with a pedestrianised Quay St?”
          > Why would it? Different uses, different markets. Will every other street in town have to compete with Quay St?
          Not every other street is a stone’s throw from a revitalised pedestrian boulevard. Just look at how Elliott St has never been able to compete with Queen St, or even High St, for that matter.

          “The CPO is bounded by Tyler and Galway St – how many people choose to walk along those late at night, rather than go through the CPO (when open) or down Customs St instead?”
          > Personally I walk through Tyler or Galway if I am going past because it is most direct and faster. Not sure what you think is in these lanes that isn’t in the CPO.
          Buses, taxis, dark shadows. Look at it from a single female’s perspective – poor lighting and sparse foot traffic set the alarm bells ringing.

          Patrick could be right, though. As these projects encourage more people into the CBD, there may be too many people to fit in the proposed waterfront areas or on the existing “shared space” streets. If we could extend the “new” street from Lower Albert to Lower Hobson, behind the PWC building, to link with the viaduct, we could replicate Rotorua’s “Eat Street”. 🙂

        3. Well at is e idea get the framework is promoting, opening up all these blocks with streets and access. You can’t judge the future outcomes of a revitalised CBD based on what it used to be like ten years ago. I spend a lot of time around Britomart in the evenings and the dark empty shadows thing doesn’t really exist anymore. There are already plenty of people and activity there, precisely because the new streets have things on them that attract people.

        4. I have to confess that I haven’t been to the area “at night” since last Christmas. Heading into the CPO from Queen St, I used to take the side entrance from Galway St, but on a winter’s evening it felt a little forbidding. That was a combination of the buses and taxis, and the narrow footpaths. Are there any plans to make these two streets shared spaces (especially once the buses go)?

        5. Good questions.

          About the width of Tyler would be my call. With some cover probably on sides, overhangs or even loggia.

          Why would people walk it? Because it would be activated all the way along with shops, bars, cafes.

          How is that different from Galway or Tyler? Not activated around Britomart, just bus-blighted; see post above. But where activated, the eastern end, those streets are very busy.

          Won’t people choose Quay? I hope some do, the numbers of people here are going to be huge; will need all routes. Including, I’m sure, a through mall route like there is currently.

          Even pre-CRL the ever increasing numbers pouring out of the train station have to be accommodated, then there’s the new 40 storey tower, more ferry services, buses…. there’s going to be a lot of people. In fact a big potential problem for the designers is working out what volume of people to work towards….?

  3. Glad to see you acknowledging the complete lack of planning for buses. A total, abject failure by the Council, even by Auckland’s low standards. And yet still no realistic solution.

  4. Lets be honest – our international gateway is Auckland airport.
    The majority of Auckland citizens have their city centres closer to where they live. Henderson, Botany, Manukau, Otahuhu, Onehunga, Takapuna, Pukekohe etc.
    Who really believes that downtown Auckland should be our centre – it has no attraction to me as a transport centre, shopping centre etc.
    Poorly designed, and when a big event is on it is an overcrowded hole, and does need fixing up, but let those who live there do that, not us in the suburbs.

    1. Symbolic and ceremonial centre, is what I mean of course, that can’t be in Botany or where ever.

      You’re welcome to stay in suburbs Don if that’s your preference, it just that plenty don’t share it. And remember that the centre has long been taxed disproportionately by Council and the money spent everywhere else, so no one is asking you to have anything to do with it.

      Downtown poorly designed? Absolutely, that’s rather the point of the post, and the process, so let’s fix it.

    2. Don,

      >> Who really believes that downtown Auckland should be our centre – it has no attraction to me as a transport centre, shopping centre etc.
      >> it has no attraction to me as a transport centre, shopping centre etc.
      >> it has no attraction to me
      >> to me
      >> me

      Hm. I might have found the source of your confusion.

      Seriously though, the three Auckland Central area units have fewer residents than half the number of car parking spots in roughly the same space. Meanwhile, the PT network brings in thousands more people daily. So the daytime population of these areas is far in excess of the resident population, suggesting that it is a popular place for those who might happen to live in suburbia.

      That ratio will gradually rebalance, of course, as people choose to live in closer proximity to the place they care about, and not in automobile-dependent sprawl.

      But even then, the city centre will be for everyone. In fact, it will and does still matter to you, whether you directly use it or not, because other people and businesses and services close to you are likely to be meaningfully connected to it somehow — probably to your advantage (as they are likely to be exploiting the various agglomeration benefits of a primary city centre).

    3. By all means stay in the burbs then Don, nobody is saying abandon the other centres, but perhaps you should give town another try too? Most people who make comments like yours haven’t set foot in the city in ten years and aren’t aware of just how good it has become for shopping, dining, events and public space. Try a sunny weekend afternoon when there isn’t an event on, you might be pleasantly surprised.

      On your last point. There are relatively few people who live in town, although at about 40,000 residents its bigger than Papakura, and its also the fastest growing area in the country. However, a total of 250,000 Aucklanders visit the CBD on a typical weekday for work, education, shopping or entertainment. It is by far and away the most used centre and undeniably there centre of the region.

  5. Not only a great post Patrick; it is also a visionary post. Notice how similar in shape the area outside the Britomart Railway Station is to your photo of Angers in France. In my mind I can just see a similar light rail or modern tram proceeding up Queen Street and on to Dominion Road to link up with the Mt Roskill Spur railway line, giving that reasonably densely populated part of town transit options superior to anything currently available. But the CRL must come first and soon. Politicians please note!
    Patrick – I think it could be a good idea to approach Simon Wilson of Metro magazine to see if he would publish your article in his magazine.the historical aspects must have readership appeal and the desirability of a city focal point is very pertinent in the whole waterfront revamp mix.

  6. Basics first- downtown pavements urgently need a clean. The homeless issue is also a major one and is way worse than cities many times larger. Retail/tourism there will start suffering soon.

  7. Interesting post, Patrick – many thanks.

    One comment though on the last image – as one can see, trams can be a major barrier to people movement too. If they were to stop right in front of the CPO, then they would potentially block people more than the buses now (having experienced same often enough in Germany in a much larger square).

    So I’d suggest that it might be better for trams to stop on Quay just around the corner…

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