Who is this all for?

Stuart Houghton 

Associate Principle Boffa Miskell Auckland

Place making as a term has become not only a ubiquitous mots du jour amongst those responsible for planning, designing and managing our cities but also an increasingly sophisticated and highly organised, controlled and managed city activity, enacted by a broad collective of professionals that may include planners, designers, artists and other creatives, event and project managers, publicists, risk advisors, traffic management,  planners and various local government officials amongst many, many others.

Here in Auckland efforts have been led largely by the efforts of Council-controlled organisation Waterfront Auckland at the Wynyard Quarter and elsewhere across the waterfront; and by Cooper and Co, private developers and long term landlords of the Britomart Precinct; as well as the Heart of the City business association through their Big Little City campaign and wider events portfolio. The physical infrastructure of place making is being supported by significant resources and outreach to Aucklanders through both mainstream and social media. Those Aucklanders who work, live or regularly visit the city centre will have noticed the difference, and have become accustomed to an ever growing range of events and offerings that seek to activate the public spaces of the waterfront and city.

These efforts are without doubt commendable and have been instrumental in forging new connections between Aucklanders and their city centre and waterfront, highlighting the transformational change and new dynamic that is occurring in public life and urban renewal more generally within the city centre. Aucklanders are learning to love their central city; to want to be there, even though they may have no reason to.

This approach to the development and management of the public realm has become so successful that place making and, more generally, the need for ‘activation’, are starting to become not only the leading catch cries but the major driving force in public space development in this city. Where is all this leading us? Already within the design professions it often seems we are heading towards a dumbed-down understanding and dialogue around the role of public space that appears to regard it as merely a blank canvas or empty stage that must be activated.

The consensus view is that if a space isn’t activated, it cannot be successful. And, increasingly, if you don’t have a comprehensive place-making programme in place, how can you be sure that this activation will occur? Even people themselves start to be regarded as something to be managed, programmed and activated to ensure a successful public place.

The role of public space

There is a danger that this new conventional wisdom around place making and activation of public space has become so de rigueur that it becomes an end in and of itself.  This place making dialogue tends to overlook many of the other societal qualities and functions of public space that should be considered fundamental to urban life.

Whatever happened to designing spaces that can simply become just great places to be? Places to just inhabit, to dwell and spend time not money; that provide respite from activity even. What about public spaces that are unprogrammed places of encounter, exploration, wander and wonderment? Surely we should be interested in providing public places that can support spontaneity, unscripted and unstructured play and activity as much as that of the organised kind.

We need spaces that provide for freedom of use and expression by all sorts of people, both individuals and groups, and happily accommodate different groups and activities at once. We need spaces that people can make their own; use in ways that they see fit which often cannot be foreseen by designers and others involved in shaping our public places.

Shouldn’t this sense of freedom in public space provide something of an energising, engaging, tactile and visceral counterpoint to the detached and predictable world of the virtual we all now inhabit?

Lastly, don’t we need to make sure we are providing public places that cater for all?  Places that only cater to the interests and values of select groups or that cannot be enjoyed without spending money are not genuine public places.  

Good places take time

Underpinning all this needs to be a clear understanding that public space is not a consumable product to be designed and delivered perfectly formed and functioning on day one. This point is illustrated well in considering people’s perceptions of the recently completed Lorne Street shared space outside the Central Library.  The resultant space is perceived by many in the Auckland planning and design community, as well as the wider public, to be an unsuccessful place that is empty and bland, devoid of any activity, not helped by the disused St James Theatre down one side. There have been calls for the space to be redesigned or ‘to be greater activated’, that it is not being used. But this view overlooks the ways in which different groups are finding opportunities to use this space in ways that work for them and also serve to enliven the public realm in the ways desired by those who scorn of its emptiness.

Good places take time to grow and evolve. They need time to allow the people that inhabit them to take hold of them and recreate them as their own. Places cannot be designed and delivered to order. They have to be allowed to happen, to grow and change from the direct efforts of those who live, work, spend time in and care about them. In the case of Lorne Street, some groups have found opportunities for public life where others have only seen failure. What for one person is a useless, empty, bland and purposeless space has become to others an opportunity to skate away from the tut tutting of the masses or the perfect place for skint students and back packers to sit and utilise the library’s free wifi in the dappled light and refreshing breeze of a warm summers afternoon. These are authentic and genuine uses and users of public space and they should not be overlooked in favour of more orderly or organised public activity.

We should be careful to ensure place making does not become a tool for displacing social activities considered undesirable with ones considered desirable or appropriate by an influential elite. We should also make sure that where efforts are put into the organised and managed activation of public space, this does not kill off or dissipate a culture of genuine public life in favour of commercialised, institutionalised and sanctioned activity in public. Being in the public realm of the city must be different to visiting a theme park, shopping mall, sport stadium, performance venue or other highly staged and managed social space.

So what does all this say about us?

We need to be comfortable with the idea that a healthy city is a diverse, dynamic, messy and unpredictable place. It should be capable of supporting public life that is organic and unscripted, spontaneous, inclusive and fundamentally democratic. The city must be a place for all; a place that allows for difference, tolerates messiness and imperfection and encompasses the widest range of possible uses and users. The social value of the encounter, the ability to brush up against others different from oneself, is a fundamental attribute of city life that suburban Aucklanders need to become comfortable with if this fast growing and increasingly diverse and metropolitan city of 1.5 million individuals is to get along and succeed as a city of the twenty first century. 

That Aucklanders are at best somewhat unaccustomed if not downright uncomfortable with mixing with others of a different kind is one very big social reason why we should be investing in public places. We should understand and talk about these public places in the broadest terms possible – it is not just how we value and use our streets and squares, our parks and beaches. It is also about getting people out of the personal bubble of their private car and moving through our public transport stations and interchanges and onto our trains, buses and ferries. It is about the community interaction that happens inside the public institutions of our schools, child care centres, our libraries, swimming pools, recreational and community centres, art galleries, museums and all other public buildings and institutions. All of these things are capable of bringing diverse groups of people together and help form a stronger social glue that sticks us together. 

That we are often uncomfortable with each other should not exactly be surprising in a city that is mostly a disparate and far flung collection of suburbs. These suburbs are largely so lacking in diversity and so strongly segregated along stratified socio-economic lines that everyone knows their place in the house price pecking order thanks to the regular league tables published almost weekly for the benefit of all by the New Zealand Herald. This lack of a shared existence is made even more pointed by the fact that the vast majority of Aucklanders only move around their city by private car.

These social and cultural divides are evident in much recent debate about public life in our city. It is especially telling where people express sentiments around ridding areas of activity considered undesirable or considered not to belong. These sentiments can be seen as a thread running through the debate on many issues in central Auckland and the city as a whole;  be it ridding Queen Street of drunks or homeless, clashes between the fashion establishment and shopkeepers of more recent immigrant origin over shoebox shops and sheesha smoking on High Street, or more micro and seemingly trivial issues such as the complaints and looks of disapproval from some directed at the messy eating spectacles that unfold every day at the northern end of Elliot Street thanks to the presence of an extraordinarily popular Dominos Pizza. More broadly we see the same thing in the thinly veiled us and them NIMBY attitudes driving the unitary plan debates around intensification of residential neighbourhoods, or the revealing attitudes expressed by some in discussing the recent announcement of a Te Papa North museum to be located in the Manukau CBD in preference to the central city waterfront.

There seems in all of this a somewhat disturbing inability to tolerate, relate to or accept the different customs, behaviours or lifestyle aspirations of others.  The fact is Auckland is experiencing immense population growth and demographic change.  In a city where more than half of its residents were born outside of New Zealand, coming together is all important and we all have to learn to get along. he public realm of the city must fundamentally be a place for everyone.  

Broadening the place making dialogue

As designers we should be broadening the current conversation beyond place-making as a vehicle for entertainment and leisure that is highly staged and managed to developing a genuine culture around our public spaces that is inclusive , provides for freedom of expression and open-endedness, tolerates and embraces difference and messiness and helps to brings people together and feel connected in everyday and extraordinary ways without their being the constant need for organised place making initiatives.

For a sense of what it could be like to live in such an Auckland, we need look no further than the happenings of those few months in September and October 2011 when the city played host to the Rugby World Cup. On the opening night in particular, Aucklanders thronged into their city centre from all reaches of this sprawling suburban region of 1.5 million people for the opening night celebrations. Our run down trains were so overloaded they couldn’t cope. Up and down Queen Street crowds were spilling from the pavements into the gutter and eventually people took over the streets. People kept coming back day after day for the duration of the tournament; just to be a part of it.

More than anything else, those halcyon days demonstrated to Aucklanders what living in a connected city of 1.5 million diverse denizens should actually feel like. It was a taste of living in a real city; a palpable feeling of living in a place that is much more connected both physically and socially with something bigger than our everyday private lives.

 This feeling of being connected to something bigger than oneself is part of what makes everyday life in the truly great cities of the world not just tolerable but at its best a daily uplifting and life affirming experience. This aspect of public life is what we should be striving for in the Auckland of the 21st century.

There is clearly a role for place making in helping forge new connections between Aucklanders and their city; bringing people together and encouraging them to engage with places and each other in ways their everyday lives don’t naturally provide for. We should celebrate and continue the success we are achieving with our current place making drive. But we should remember who this is all for. This is not about activity for activities sake but to foster public life for a greater purpose, to foster an open and inclusive public space culture in this city that unites and binds us together. The city needs to be a place for all.

Our understanding of what makes successful public places can’t be limited to cappuccino urbanism or the city as a recreational playground. The real place-making project for Auckland needs to go further than keeping people occupied of a sunny Sunday afternoon. It needs to be about transforming our public spaces of all kinds and right across this city into lived-in places that are love d and cared for by Aucklanders of all persuasions as they go about their everyday lives in this increasingly diverse big little city. City life is fundamentally a shared collective existence. Provide public places that take care of this, and the place making takes care of itself.

Xsection Issue Three 2013/14 Placemaking