This is a guest post by Jessica Rose, an Avondale resident.
Last weekend Avondale town centre was host to the first Open Streets event in Tamaki Makaurau since 2016. Closing Great North Road to cars, while opening it to people. This is a long time between drinks, considering Open Streets usually take the form of a series of regular events over consecutive weekends.
In keeping with this spirit, this event was the first of four scheduled throughout 2023 which will see a full series of activations under the Open Streets banner. Certainly, it’s come a very long way from the 2015 Quay Street attempt, which while rich in activity, was meagre on road allocation.
For real though, let's open our streets for people every weekend.
Shops are thriving while the community connects and celebrates. pic.twitter.com/Jib8RAOd0T
— Critical_Mass (@CriticalMassAKL) April 15, 2023
#openstreets success in Avondale today. With urban intensification we need opportunities for people to be a community.
— Jessica Rose Whau Resident (@jessicarose_LTF) April 15, 2023
Funded in 2022 by Auckland Transport, Open Streets Avondale [OSA] is part of a suite of 7 Vibrant Streets projects that passed muster as submitted by Local Boards across the city, and one of 3 submitted by the Whau Local Board alone. Previously known as Regional Streets for People “The Vibrant Streets is a $3 million, three-year programme to be delivered by Auckland Transport as part of this climate action package and is aligned to Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland’s Climate Plan, which seeks to improve active modes access and infrastructure as a part of reducing transport emissions.”
One of the primary things that sets this programme apart appears to be the legitimate commitment to co-designing and co-delivering with community. Having worked on the ill-fated Inner West project from as far back as 2016, I have first hand experience of the ebbing and flowing of this commitment in the past – and it led to some “once-bitten” style recommendations from the Whau Local Board when advising Auckland transport on how to proceed with Avondale Open Streets:
It’s gratifying to report that this feels like it’s being done right, so far. The first OSA cab off the rank was the ‘Whau Arts Festival’, led and delivered by long-standing community denizens Whau the People – that’s a play on words ‘For the People’, for anyone early in their pronunciation journey.
Hope comes in many forms … and a fully programmed arts festival in a closed street is one them.https://t.co/ONn6M92CRj@streetsforall @_chloeswarbrick @jessicarose_LTF @PhilTwyford @PlacemakingX @CityLab @WomenInUrbanism @BikeAKL @michaelwoodnz @AklTransport @_chloeswarbrick pic.twitter.com/fq4G5rfsVC
— Places for Good -Pride in place (@placesforgood) April 6, 2023
The Whau the People collective first formed in 2013 as a vehicle for growing participation in the arts locally, with their first Whau Arts Festival held in 2014. The history lesson is important. Following the community stakeholder disaster regarding the New Lynn to Avondale Path opening in 2021, there was a strong pushback from local people left feeling demeaned and undermined.
For Open Streets Avondale to have a chance at success, it was crucial that the thought leadership came from those who had built a genuine social license to operate in the area. Alongside Whau The People came the full support of local movers and shakers, the Avondale Business Association no stranger to progressive controversy themselves, and “showing and growing the love” I Love Avondale (now joined by Avondale Community Action) who have been capturing and celebrating the people, places and culture of the neighbourhood for almost a decade.
The event ran from 3pm till 7pm on Saturday 15th March, with a live stage of musical acts pumping out talent for the duration, to an audience in their thousands. Bike Auckland was in attendance with their heavily used Bike Valet, and Bike Avondale saw a massive turnout on the journey there via the ‘Arty Bike up’.
The event was kicked off with a march down the street led by the Waitakere Brass Band, touted to have been together longer than the Rolling Stones. Several live artworks were created during the event, while Hoop-La kept it real, continuing their work engaging audiences in what a better street and town could look like. Not without difficulties – Whau the People had some last minute pickles to navigate when high winds put the kybosh on the bouncy castle and inflatable installations. But being in a learning environment, this didn’t dim anyone’s high spirits.
As can be seen from the feedback on the local community page, the move to raise the voices of local people has really paid off. For the full duration, the street was thronged with people, walking, biking, scootering. The ease of access had all types of assisted mobility able to participate – people with pushchairs, families, friends, the odd dog.
Online there are 219 community reactions, all positive and every comment in favour. The only complaints were from a couple of people expressing that they “just wish they’d known about it so they could have come along too”.
Surely this kind of welcoming support for a festival that came with such high transit disruption is a first? Clearly not as exciting as sledgehammer havoc in Grey Lynn, or blue paint controversy in Henderson, this closing a section of The Great North Road for a day hasn’t seen much of a commotion from anyone.
Part of this could be that there was none of the anticipated carmageddon. The traffic continued to flow, even with a large chunk of Great North Road out of action from midday to 9pm. No long tail of motor vehicles snaked its way in any direction, any of the time.
But it also harks back to doing the event in the right place, with the right people. Dare we say …actually co-designing and letting community authentically lead.
In this instance, Auckland Transport has delivered leadership in placemaking by raising the voices of the people in place and listening to advice and recommendations. That there is a reasonably simple detour around this specific patch of Great North Road may have had a bit to do with why the local body politic wouldn’t budge when it came to location.
This bodes well for the following three events in the series, happening between now and December 2023. The next of which in July will see Avondale’s Matariki Night Ride back for its 3rd year, although desperately missing the inimitable Ina Sauni at the helm. Eke Panuku will take their usual place as supporters – this time alongside Auckland Transport. In September, Woven will debut for the first time with a heavy multicultural flavour – and the series will finish up with a traditional Santa Parade, just in time for the festive season.
Which all sounds like a lot of fun, but it’s not only about community wellbeing and low emissions transport.
There is a strategic intent behind all this, and with a gaping hole where town planning for Avondale should be, the people are taking leadership in the vacuum. Long awaited but increasing urban development in Avondale means spaces that have been used by these events in the past will instead hold high rise apartments, right where they need to be near the train, bus, school and shops.
The give, however, is that unless a space is future-proofed for the cultural events that make Avondale what it is, they will have nowhere to hold their celebrations. As the spaces for mingling and lingering get squeezed out in the transformation, all the new families who want to make Avondale home won’t get to enjoy the events that make Avondale unique. Imagine if the Avondale Market space was no longer available for the stalls to trade every Sunday?
Trialling a series of Open Streets now, means that by next year when spades are in the ground, there is a pathway to future-proofing the area to maintain its wairua in the face of change. When the empty lots are full, there is only one civic space left – and it’s an excellent substrate for events. This protection of culture is something that regularly falls off the agenda for major change agents in development as a nice-to-have, or a piece of work that is someone else’s problem.
While we are still at the beginning of the programme, there is a strong hope that the learnings gained from this short series can be applied not just locally, but to other festivals across our city. More than just Avondale – imagine Sandringham Village Festival reaching its full potential using this mechanism. Perhaps all those historical NOs to opening that stretch of road could next time be a YES?
With three more events to cover in Avondale, watch this space for more details on the dates. Open Streets are for everyone and Avondale invites you to take a train, bus, bike, scoot to join us when we do it again soon.