Seeking Happiness in Our Public Spaces

April 10, 2015

Design for Auckland

How well do Auckland’s public spaces measure up?

In 2010, Jan Gehl and Gehl Architects undertook a public life survey in Auckland.  One of the things the survey looked at was how the city’s public spaces were being used. The focus was the area bounded by Myers Park to the south, Victoria Park to the west and Albert Park to the east. The area also included the section of the waterfront closest to the city centre.

Public Life Survey - Auckland

Auckland city (Source: Gehl Architects, Auckland Public Life, 2010)


The fab

Gehl Architects extolled Auckland’s natural beauty, active harbour, and unique topography as its key assets. Other strengths include its high residential population, and its role as a university city, employment centre and tourism gateway to the rest of New Zealand.

The drab

The city’s major challenges cited include: a disconnected waterfront, a motorway system that cuts off the city from surrounding suburbs, a historic over emphasis on vehicular traffic, an incomplete pedestrian network, a system of open spaces without attractive pedestrian links, and the dominance of tall buildings.


After a stint of observing how the public spaces were used, a series of recommendations were made. They include: providing safe walking and bicycle routes to the surrounding suburbs; removing one way streets; widening footpaths; placing benches in attractive environments; introducing a street hierarchy that gives priority to pedestrians; extending the present waterfront promenade.

The bottom line is: When it comes to natural assets Auckland has a huge advantage.  As all Aucklanders know, the natural environment serves as a wonderful playground, but the quality of our post-war built environment is lacking. Far too much emphasis has been placed on cars, which are resource-hungry, compared to people, who are atmosphere-hungry. What was recommended were gradual transformations to make the changes sustainable and to give people time to adapt.

Five years on, how has Auckland fared?

One of the best things about a survey like this is that it forms a baseline against which future surveys could be undertaken. We now have the means to chart our progress.

In May this year, Gehl Architects will return once more to Auckland. As part of their visit, Gehl Architects will also hold workshops on the public space/public life methodology so that in the future, we can run the survey ourselves. This will help to build up the chain of evidence.

Five years in the life of a city can accomplish (and destroy) many things. With the successful delivery of shared spaces such as Federal and O’Connell Streets, and the successful temporary repurposing of Lower Queen Street into a street for the people, during the recent Auckland Anniversary celebrations, we are confident that the city is on the right path to putting people back in the centre of the equation.

But with every Federal Street, there is a Quay Street, and with every Aotea Square, there is a Queen Elisabeth II Square.

There is a lot more work to be done, more changes that need to be made. Designing a city is a complex process, and at times, full of difficulties. But herein lies the beauty of it: a city without difficulties is a city without people, and a city without people is no city at all.

It feels apt to end an article on happiness in our public spaces by reflecting on the words of Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City:

“… healthy social network looks like the root mass of a tree. From the most important relationships at the heart of the network, thinner roots stretch out to contacts of different strength and intensity. Most people’s root networks are contracting, closing in on themselves, circling more and more tightly around spouses, partners, parents, and kids. These are our most important relationships, but every arborist knows that a tree with a small root-ball is more likely to fall over when the wind blows.”

Good public spaces are like fertiliser for the root-ball of our social networks – under the surface, almost imperceptibly, everything is growing from strength to strength. To build a happy city then, we must be like gardeners, lovingly nourishing these roots, allowing for connections to be made, so that when the wind blows, our city remains standing.

Article by Szening Ooi.

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