Public Spaces for Everyone, Including the Homeless

Following on from our look at possible housing solutions for Auckland’s homeless, this week we focus on our public spaces and how they can be designed for everyone to enjoy, including people who are homeless.

When you haven’t got a place of your own to call home, options for places to safely and comfortably spend the night and day are essential.

Auckland’s homelessness issue continues to worsen, with recent statistics putting the homeless population in the CBD alone at almost 180. Whilst the Housing First initiative will help to get some of the people who are sleeping rough into homes, there are other ways that the health and well-being of Auckland’s homeless can be improved.

How we design our public spaces can have a huge impact on how people who are homeless experience day-to-day life.  In this article we explore some innovative approaches to the design of public space that have been very effective at integrating the interests and needs of all Aucklanders.

The Griffiths Gardens

Located on the corner of Wellesley Street and Albert Street, the Griffiths Gardens offers a unique approach to designing inner city public spaces. Opened in late-2016, the gardens are the brainchild of Activate Auckland and act as a multi-functional space where local office workers can eat lunch, children play and numerous educational workshops are held each week. The Griffith Gardens are also in close proximity to the City Mission and so careful thought was given to ensuring the space also factored in the experience of the homeless, who would also be using that space.

Like the PLACE / Ladywell development featured in last week’s post, the Griffiths Gardens are an example of a Meanwhile Use, whereby otherwise vacant lots are given a use which will benefit the wider community. The site will eventually be used for the new Aotea City Rail Link station.

Griffiths Garden 2

Griffiths Garden – nestled behind communal planter boxes, the Community Fridge allows people to donate food for the benefit of others.


What makes the space distinctive is the inclusion of a community fridge. Originally intended as a one month trial, the popularity of the fridge has meant that it is now a permanent fixture in the garden. The fridge, an initiative by the Love Food Hate Waste project, allows people to donate food. Anyone can donate or take food from the fridge, though the fridge is of particular benefit to the CBD’s homeless community. What’s great about the fridge is that everyone, the homeless, children and office workers alike all open the fridge and have a good look inside. There’s something so commonplace about peering into the fridge, adding some apples and bananas or plucking out lunch. The fridge transcends being a service for any one group of people, everyone enjoys the experience of participating in the initiative together.

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The Griffiths Gardens, which opened in late-2016, has been a huge success.


This participatory approach is interwoven into the Gardens, whether it be planting seeds into the planters, watering the flowers, engaging in a workshop or simply having lunch.  There is a canopied area that provides shelter from sun or rain, under which the homeless and officer workers often sit side by side. It’s also a place to shelter for the night. There’s room for everyone. The success of the parklet is that it does not differentiate between use of space and the visual language it speaks says everyone is equally welcome.

The Griffiths Gardens receives a lot of love from volunteers who care for the gardens, the fridge and run workshops. This hands on approach to maintenance means everyone uses the space respectfully and it never suffers from neglect, which is another factor in why it continues to be a public space for all people to enjoy.

Public spaces that are ‘anti-everyone’

Unfortunately, spaces like Griffiths Gardens are not the norm. In towns and cities all over the world, including Auckland,  public spaces are often designed to dissuade the homeless from using them. The most common example of this is the use of benches which can’t be slept on, either because of their shape/size, or the inclusion of an arm rest in the middle of the seat.

The more extreme design responses include floor spikes and doorway sprinklers. These design responses drive the homeless away from public spaces and into more hidden and neglected areas that are often unsafe. This is particularly an issue for women who are homeless.  Being in the public realm, where everyone can watch out for you, helps to keep everyone safe.

Street furniture such as this park been is designed to prevent its use by the homeless.

Street furniture such as this park bench is designed to prevent its use by the homeless.


Everyone has the right to some comfort

An often overlooked issue for people who are homeless is their lack of access to showers and bathrooms. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the nonprofit Lava Mae converts public transportation buses into showers and toilets on wheels for use by the local homeless people. This has dramatically helped to raise awareness about the need for access to showers and basic hygiene for the homeless communities.

The winter months, where exposure is a risk, can be the most harrowing. In Vernon, British Columbia, the local council has allowed rough sleepers to legally camp in designated public parks. Elsewhere, designers such as Michael Rakowitz are coming up with innovative solutions to the issue of providing temporary shelter.  ParaSITE is a ‘custom built inflatable shelter designed for homeless people that attaches to the exterior outtake vents of a building’s Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system. The warm air leaving the building simultaneously inflates and heats the double membrane structure.’

The Lava Bus brings portable showers and bathrooms to rough sleepers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Lava Mae brings portable showers and bathrooms to rough sleepers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.


Solutions for improving the lives of homeless need not be permanent fixtures. Simple, temporary measures such as the Community Fridge, paraSITE inflatable shelters or mobile showers and bathrooms, go a long way to making a homeless person’s life a little easier.

Tomorrow marks the start of Matariki Festival 2017, the Māori new year. To celebrate, next week the ADM showcases some great examples of Māori design in Auckland.


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