The Art of Creating Public Spaces

March 17, 2017

Design for Auckland

With the 2017 Auckland Arts Festival in full swing, Aotea Square has transformed into a hive of activity. Crowds of students and pensioners alike gather excitedly for a show at the Spiegeltent, while across the square revellers make the most of the evening sun at The Festival Garden. The festival has brought many of the city centre’s public spaces to life – but, what if they were like this all the time? This week, the Auckland Design Manual looks at the delicate art of creating thriving public spaces and the benefits they bring.

It’s the presence of bustling public spaces, whether plazas, squares or peoples parks, that often sets a city apart and signifies it as a cultural capital.  But, for whatever reason, Auckland often struggles to replicate these thriving ‘bump spaces’ where locals gather to pass the hours; taking fresh air, socialising or people watching. Yes, we have some great public spaces, but they don’t quite evoke the same emotion as the likes of Shanghai’s Peoples Park Rénmín Gōngyuán or Siena’s Piazza del Campo. Wellington has even been ahead of the game, with the likes of Cuba Mall and its lengthy waterfront acting as popular, informal spaces for people to relax and socialise (well, except when it’s too windy…).

Wellington's Cuba Street functions as an informal meeting place for people year-round

Wellington’s Cuba Street functions as an informal meeting and relaxation spot for people year-round

 

The Ingredients

So, what are the vital ingredients for creating more of these vibrant public spaces and how can we apply them in Auckland?

Walkability

First and foremost, successful public spaces are accessible by foot – you shouldn’t need to drive to them. Furthermore, the presence of cars, in particular the need to cross busy roads, can act as a physical and psychological deterrent to accessing a public space. So, for our  spaces to be successful, they must be accessible without the need for pedestrians to cross major vehicle routes.

As Auckland's city centre laneway circuit continues to grow, increased opportunities for quality public spaces will present themselves (O'Connell Street, Auckland city centre)

As Auckland’s city centre laneway circuit continues to grow, increased opportunities for quality public spaces will present themselves (O’Connell Street, Auckland city centre)

 

Climate

An often-overlooked element which impacts on the use of outdoor public spaces is climate. As well-designed as a space may be, people aren’t going to linger in arctic conditions. Conversely, people aren’t going to enjoy being baked alive in a space with no shade. As luck would have it, Auckland’s subtropical climate is optimal for the continued use of these spaces year-round.

Auckland's subtropical climate is optimal for the continued use of public spaces year-round (St Patrick's Square, Auckland)

Auckland’s subtropical climate is optimal for the continued use of public spaces year-round (St Patrick’s Square, Auckland)

 

Design & Complementary Uses

Both the design of a public space and the uses that surround it are integral to its success. Successful spaces are of a scale that is neither too small, nor too vast. They are often surrounded by complementary uses, such as cafes and restaurants, and the enclosing buildings provide an adequate balance of sunlight and shade.

The Grand Place in Brussels is of an appropriate scale, and is surrounded by the required uses, that attract people to spend time in the square

The Grand Place in Brussels is surrounded by uses that encourage people to spend time in the square

 

Culture

Aucklanders are not historically people who linger in public spaces. We use them as thoroughfares – they are not places where we go to relax or socialise. This is very different to the public life mindset in many parts of the world, in which public spaces are at the centre of many daily activities. So, perhaps for our use of public spaces to change, our culture and perception of these spaces must also adapt.

Place activation – the practice of ​ making spaces inclusive, memorable, unified, innovative and entrepreneurial – and tactical urbanism - the delivery of ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper’ physical interventions – are two important tools which could help shift our city’s attitude towards public spaces. The use of public spaces for the Auckland Arts Festival is an example of successful place activation in our city.  The art of great activation leads to these temporary initiatives seeding active public spaces that last well beyond the intervention.

The Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, which, according to the renowned urban designer Jan Gehl, is the 'perfectly designed' public square

The Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, which, according to the renowned urban designer Jan Gehl, is the ‘perfectly designed’ public square

 

People

The last, and perhaps most important, ingredient is people, and you don’t get people without a certain level of density. Have a think – many of the iconic public spaces in Europe, such as Siena’s Piazza del Campo, are located in cities or towns with much smaller populations than Auckland. However, they are located in areas where people both live and work; high quality, dense locations with enough residents and workers to support a bustling public space.

Auckland’s city centre the city centre is becoming an increasingly attractive option to live in and many of the city-fringe suburbs, such as Eden Terrace, Grafton and K’ Road, are following suit. So, perhaps the tide is turning.

Trafalgar Square, located in the heart of London, has the surrounding density to ensure it is busy

Trafalgar Square, located in the heart of London, has the surrounding density to ensure it is busy

 

The Future

The redevelopment of Freyberg Square, located on the city centre’s laneway circuit, presents an opportunity to change the local perception of how a public space can be used. It is hoped the square will act as an ‘oasis’ in the city, harnessing shelter from the predominant winds, whilst providing much needed shade over some seating areas in summer months. Universal design has been a key consideration, ensuring the facilities and spaces are as accessible and comfortable as possible. If successful, the redevelopment has the potential to act as a catalyst for the increased use of other public spaces in the city.

In the words of the renowned architect Jan Gehl, “A good city is like a good party — people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves”.

Freyberg-Square-Proposed-Design

The planned redevelopment of Auckland’s Freyberg Square – the square is set to reopen in Autumn

 

Check out the ADM’s Activate Auckland hub for inspiration, tips and resources on achieving quality public realm activation.

Next week: With Neighbours Day Aotearoa steadily approaching (25-26 March), the ADM looks at what it takes to turn a street into a neighbourhood.

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One Response to “The Art of Creating Public Spaces”

  1. Jesvier Kaur Says:

    Great conversation. Auckland needs more vibrant and welcoming public spaces that make it easier for diverse people and communities to connect and interact. How about creating activities and events that traverse ethnicity, income, age, etc. That would bring togetherness – create unity – breakdown barriers.

    Reply

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