Aotea Square, the people’s park?

Observations of Aotea Square


/ əbˈzəːv/ verb

  1. see or notice somebody/something

  2. watch somebody/something carefully, especially to learn more about them

Jan Gehl, the influential Danish urbanist, once proclaimed that “we definitely know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens.”

In the spirit of combining the pleasures of people watching with the responsibility of data collection, the author and a few volunteers headed towards Aotea Square, Auckland’s pre-eminent people’s park, to observe how it was used.

aotea birds eye view

Aotea Square

We used Gehl’s Public Space Public Life methodology, which consists of pedestrian counting (counting through movements entering and leaving the square) and stationary activity mapping (capturing lingering activities in the square). The survey took place from 8am to 11pm on a mild Wednesday in April, and 10am to 8pm on a clear Saturday in May.

The following are some of the observations made on the two days.

aotea birds observation map

Map of Aotea Square and survey locations


aotea 4

The northern points act as gateways to the city’s ‘engine room’, which stretches northwards from the square towards the Waitemata Harbour, and functions as the city’s financial, retail and employment hub. The northern points also connect students on the buses that service West Auckland with the city’s key learning institutions – Auckland University and AUT.

In comparison, south of the square has a much lower level of development intensity, as well as being less pedestrian-orientated. This is reflected in the much lower pedestrian numbers at the square’s southern points (points 3 and 4). The lack of a coherent and safe public route between Karangahape Road and Myers Park to Aotea Square further reduces the number of pedestrians accessing these two entry points.

Ped graph

Busy and “safer” places invite more foot traffic

One of the self-perpetuating effects of a busy thoroughfare is that it increases the perception of safety amongst pedestrians, leading to a higher number of pedestrians accessing those routes.

Low foot traffic at night

In general, however, the number of pedestrians using the square drops significantly in the evening. During the day, the square is accessed by office workers, students, tourists and school children. After 6pm, when the offices are vacated and shops begin to shut, the majority of the CBD’s visitors leave.

An exception can be seen at point 4, located to the south of the Town Hall and connects the theatre crowd of Q Theatre, Basement Theatre and the Town Hall, with the facilities in and around the square.  At 6pm and 9pm, we observed a jump in the number of people using point 4, the first jump presumably indicating the start of a show, and the latter one indicating the end of a show.

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Southern end of Aotea Square by the Town Hall

Night-time foot traffic is an important figure because it indicates the number of people present in the city out of necessity and those present for leisure. As the public realm in Auckland improves, one can expect to see a higher percentage of pedestrians choosing to stay in the city centre at night, as well as during the day.

How people used the square

There is a very low diversity of activities taking place in the square on Wednesday. Sitting (on benches and secondary seating) is by far the most prevalent activity.

Saturday has a higher diversity of activities, largely in the form of skateboarders. Large groups of teenagers practice skateboarding tricks next to the sleeping homeless while others mill around either watching or taking videos.

aotea ctivity graph


In general, there are very few instances of young children playing at the square. Except for a large contingent of primary school children streaming out from Aotea Centre to the grass terraces on Wednesday afternoon, the number of children sighted were few and far in between.

The lack of children at the square can be linked to the lack of activities and places for children.

The many faces of a public square

Marae Atea, the main square, is the space to people-watch and wait for others. It has a livelier atmosphere, more foot traffic passing through it, and unimpeded views of the square and its occupants.

aotea 5

The steps from Queen Street act as informal seating spaces and are well-used by tourists and young people. Dove-Myer Robinson’s statue (“Robbie’s statue”), located at the top of the steps, is a popular anchor that act as both a meeting point and a photography spot.

The grass terraces, on the other hand, are more sheltered and thus afford more privacy. The people who linger here want to be discreet while being in a public space. In the evening, couples nestle close together on benches in darkened corners; smokers congregate at the steps that lead towards the back of the Town Hall.

Seating arrangements for people watching

In the morning, most of the users of Marae Atea prefer to sit with their backs against the Metro building, looking out towards the activities happening at the Square. As the sun warms up the Square, the steps from Queen Street prove to be a popular hangout space, especially for young people.   In the night time, once visibility has fallen, and if there are choices, most users of the Marae Atea tend to sit facing the ambient lights of the Metro building.

The urban dweller’s need for social acknowledgement – to see and be seen – while maintaining anonymity and privacy, can be facilitated with strategically located benches that give the best views to the Square, as well as secondary seating and benches that can be used in multiple directions.

Aotea Square, the vibrant peoples park?

Why do people gravitate towards certain public spaces and not others? We know that perception of safety is important, as is a good supply of places to sit and for children to play. We also know that we need to understand people’s psychological need not to be too exposed, or too sheltered, but much like Goldie Locks – a public space needs to feel ‘just right.’

But to bring a park life requires more than just structural changes. It requires a diverse mix of economic and social activities that take place in and around the space. It needs to attract a whole range of people with diverse schedules to use the park, so that life continues to flow through the park, long after the office workers have gone home and the shops have shut for the day.


Article by Szening Ooi 

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