Kids have their time in driver’s seat: shaping a community hub in the heart of the city

I’m perched al fresco on High Street watching the street life unfold on a mild Thursday afternoon. Shoppers are sifting through stores seeking spring sales. Weary office workers in crinkled suits are trickling out of their offices.  Tourists are angling aimlessly up the street towards the art gallery.

What captures my attention is a little girl with red hair, shuffling cautiously along the narrow pavement with her mother. It’s not the red hair that’s caught my eye – the reason she’s attracted my attention is – she’s the only child I’ve seen on High Street this afternoon and I’ve been sitting here for an hour.

Many of the busiest areas in Auckland’s city centre are notably devoid of children.

Yet, almost a quarter of the population living in central Auckland are children aged 13 and under.  According to Penelope Carroll and Karen Witten from SHORE and Whariki Research Centre, the notable absence of kids is due to a shortage of child-friendly spaces: “Children like to play and explore – and spaces to do so safely are scare in the city centre.”

kids at wynyard

Kids water play station at Wynyard Quarter


Our city has started to get a little friendlier towards little people though. You only have to look at the rapid adoption of Wynyard Quarter as a popular intergenerational destination to see that when a public space is child friendly – central Auckland families really do flock to these spaces in droves.

What Waterfront Auckland’s intergenerational approach at Wynyard Quarter has also shown us is – a public space that works well for children will work well for everyone, from kids, office workers and students, to the elderly and tourists alike.

In the spirit of delivering more intergenerational public spaces in our central city, Freyberg Square and Pioneer Women’s Ellen Melville Hall are set for a major overhaul.  And this time Auckland Council invited the kids to get in the driver’s seat and help steer the new intergenerational design.

Five boys and six girls aged 7 to 13 years, from a cross section of central Auckland schools took part in three design workshops run by Auckland Council and Massey University.

Freyberg kids

The volunteers – Children of Central Auckland


In the initial workshops the kids were invited to undertake their own ‘child friendly audit’ of the square and the hall. They were set loose to take photographs and record their impressions.

The children felt the square “…should be an area for all ages, even babies.”

They wanted more things to interact with; they didn’t like the metal seats because they were ‘rusty and disgusting’; and they thought the fountain water smelt ‘not nice’ and the yellow glass at the bottom looked ‘really gross.’  They also thought that “No cars should be able to drive in” and felt it would be good to have more opportunities to ‘sit up high’ in the square.

freyberg kids in the square

‘Child friendly audit’ in action


They also had a lot of creative ideas for what activities would be good to run out of the hall, including: light shows, movies, cooking lessons, as well as music and art classes.

Freyberg kids photo audit

‘Child-friendly audit’ in action


Thanks to the kids’ very frank feedback the design team were able to use their ideas to shape their concept plan for the square and the hall.

freyberg kids design feedback

Kids review the plans


Freyberg proposed design

The proposed design for Freyberg Square


Then it was show time…

Senior Project Leader Lisa Spasić presented the proposed plans to the children to see how the design stacked up to the kids expectations.

Overall, Ms Spasić said the kids were thrilled – one of the kids exclaimed, “Wow, we’ve got power!”

The kids’ feedback was reflected back in the conceptual design of the new steps and terraces that would allow them to ‘climb up high.’ They liked the more organic and interactive design of the water feature that now includes stepping stones. They also had more access to playing amongst the plants on the bank above the square and around the Lord Freyberg statue.

The kids reflected how important it had been to involve them in the design process. ‘Kids ideas of how they like things to be are different to how adults think.  Kids usually have more creative ideas, interacting with things and not just sitting and texting on their phone…’

A successful city must have public spaces that everyone enjoys, from the very young to the very old. According to Amanda Burden, New York’s chief city planner who the led revitalization of some of the city’s most familiar features — from the High Line to the Brooklyn waterfront…

There is a lot of power in great public spaces, they “can change how you live in a city and how you feel about a city…”

Whilst a small space, Freyberg Square and the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Hall offer a significant variety of opportunities for children to explore, play and have adventures.  For the children involved in shaping the design concept, they were gratified to know there would be a great public space that children, ‘even babies,’ would be able to enjoy right in the heart of the city.

*Auckland Council engaged with a number of stakeholder groups to develop a plan for Freyberg Square and the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Hall.  These groups included: Auckland public, residents, visitors, employees and tourists, Heart of the City, Mana Whenua iwi Groups, National Council of Women of NZ, Ellen Melville family, Youth Advisory Panel, Waitemata Youth Collective, NZ Returned Services Association, Metropolis Board Members, Local Businesses, Gen Zero, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport, Waitemata Local Board, NZ Fire Services, Disablity Action and City Centre Advisory Board.

Learn more about the proposed design for Freyberg Square and the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Hall and share your thoughts – go to

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3 Responses to “Kids have their time in driver’s seat: shaping a community hub in the heart of the city”

  1. Matt Ensor Says:

    This looks like a fabulous example of re-thinking the role and function of a CBD and making it an interesting and appealing destination for families.


  2. Jane Says:

    What a fantastic example of a project being informed by the thoughts and ideas of our city’s young people. The revitalized space will be richer as a result of the children’s input and the children involved will remember this project for years to come. Auckland’s city builders of the future perhaps!


  3. Mark Says:

    Great to include the younger people in our community in the consultation. And good work to the design team for listening to them.
    Very much looking forward th Square and Hall being redeveloped.


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