Public Spaces Along Auckland's Waterfront

Information & Transportation Exchanges


Nathan Hayes

BA, BAS, The University of Auckland



The health of the Auckland Waterfront is predicated on occurances of public space within its physical and perceptual parameters.  This article suggests the importance of merging these parameters within future urban planning strategies by examining how public space may encourage the exchange of information.  

The intangible resourses which create and occupy public spaces are discussed as operators of exchange.  The Auckland Waterfront corridor is clearly defined by its physical area and general stakeholder interests.  Public transportation is presented as the impetus for new connective design strategies.  Recent historical urban planning strategies are briefly discussed to establish the originating of planning methodology and its societal effects.  Recent and current design initiatives by major stakeholders Waterfront Auckland and Ports of Auckland are investigated in methodology and resulting proposals.  Two appropriate case studies are investigated – Toronto, Canada and Wellington, New Zealand –  setting a precedent to approaching public space planning along an elongated waterfront in terms of scale and inter-district connectivity.

Based on observation, the limited connectivity of Auckland Waterfront is relative to occurances of public spaces – for whom they are designed versus how they are percieved – leading to public disconnection from the Waitemata Harbour and the Auckland Central Business District (CBD).  This article seeks to establish a continuing discourse for new urban planning methodology along Auckland’s Waterfront, where information creates public spaces along transportation nodes.  The implications of ignoring these issues will compound their effect on the public, eventuating further in unintended economic consequences.


10_Bledisloe Wharf, Auckland_Image by Author fixed.jpg


Cities live and die by the value of their public space, which are in constant flux amid the framework of morphological urban environments.1   The quantity of urban public space is annually negotiated as areas find themselves in periods of redevelopment.  Where space is limited or stakeholder-heavy, public spaces must rely on quality as their benchmark, seeking to manufacture a high-quality environment for public infiltration.  The Auckland Waterfront corridor is such an area, whose development and subsequent successes have been limited to particular pockets, while ignoring several high value areas for public space.  As the population of Auckland continues to increase its centres will densify – a ripe opportunity for collaboration between different entities if managed appropriately.

Public space will always have the potential to operate as an exchange for a tremendous amount of INTANGIBLE RESOURCES.  While most resources are defined by their physical property uses – timber is flexible, fish is consumable, and electricity is transferrable – the intangible nature of information, as a resource, is defined by its seemingly infinite amount of personal and collective perception.  In this case, it is drawn from the further context of the urban environment and as such can be further defined as the sum of three components:  a user pool, innovative potential, and connectivity.2   

User Pool

The identity of primary users within this model are local residents from Auckland Central and regional residents with cause to travel into the CBD with weekly and monthly frequency.  Secondary users are other New Zealand residents who may travel to or through Auckland with limited yearly frequency or who may simply have a strong unwavering perception of Auckland.  The often-excluded tertiary users are the tourist base which annually bolsters the city’s economy, which by definition will have a very limited opportunity to establish a perception of the spaces they occupy.

Innovative Potential

Raw data originates from various technical and intellectual assets and is collected through digital, analogous, and human-based responses.  Such data establishes the basis for Auckland’s self-preservation.  The continued digital transformation of society makes access to data more instantaneous as society and the cities we live in grow smarter, more connected, and digitally literate.3   Algorithmic predictive modelling increases commercial revenue, aids spatial syntax planning, and determines feasibility study results.  However, both data and their originating assets are dormant.  Operating kinetically, they store their potential until activated by a single user or user group.


Users connect to relevant data and assets under their own precepts which can be measured as a fluctuating degree of connectivity.  This degree or percentage, while being an important factor in design phases, does not have a large role during initial planning.  The key factor is recognising these relationships between components, which will promote a greater understanding of who is served by public space and how it might be designed.

Public spaces are great operators of this process without necessarily specifying the medium of resource collection and analysis.  These spaces filter the corresponding information, allowing the discursive observer to categorise per relevance and share as necessary with the greater extents of society.  As such, there will always be a demand for places where resources may meet with humanity and imbue upon this populated landscape their various resourceful qualities to create clear distinctions – a GENIUS LOCI – available for public participation.


The Auckland Waterfront corridor is a five kilometre long expanse extending from Point Erin Park in Westhaven to Teal Park in Judges Bay, at the entrance to Tamaki Drive.  Certainly there are opportunities to extend this scope further east towards Mission Bay, however, for the purposes discussed in this article it will remain as defined above.  A mixture of uses and intents are clearly visible to most observers, including some areas for leisure activities, commercial enterprises including retail and hospitality, light industry and manufacturing, some high-end residential, cargo shipping, and logistics.4   Major stakeholders are Waterfront Auckland, an organisation of Auckland City Council – whose area of influence includes Westhaven, Wynyard Quarter & Wharf, Halsey Wharf, portions of Viaduct Harbour, Queens Wharf, and Teal Park5  – and Ports of Auckland – whose area of influence includes Captain Cook, Marsden, Bledisloe, Jellicoe, Freyberg and Fergusson Wharves, and Mechanics and Judges Bays.6   The remainder of the land divisions include both commercial and private interests.  Additionally, beyond those immediately adjacent to the Waitemata Harbour are areas valued for their commercial, residential, and public interests such as Victoria Park, Britomart, Vector Arena, and the constructed infill surrounding these urban landmarks.7


The language of transitional spaces is one that readily exists in everyday life, though architecturally, we may refer to them as THRESHOLDS.  Breaking away from preconceived notions that thresholds carry an invisibility by their thinned perceptive veil – a simple line, a hidden boundary, or a doorway – it is possible to refer to such spaces as containing girth, commenting on their isolating nature between two other elements.8   Where some elements may initiate movement or signal the end of the journey, a threshold may provide suspension and transition.  And while this easily translates into design fields which prioritise physical exertions, places, and orientations, it can also point towards perceptual understandings under the influence of behavioural science – it is possible to influence the way in which people cycle through mental dispositions.9

Historically the Auckland Waterfront has always been a transitional threshold where different modes of movement of people and resources collided, initially for Māori and later for Māori-Pākehā cohabitation.  Today sees little difference to this pattern, with various transportation typologies connecting the waterfront to the receding urban landscape beyond.  Viewing the waterfront in relation to the CBD reveals a definitive east-west orientation which these typologies follow, including international and domestic passenger ship berths, bus stops and stations, train terminals, bicycle lanes, pedestrian pathways, vehicular traffic and car-parks.  When pairing any of these typologies with the established theory of transitional thresholds, the emerging public space immediately activates the aforementioned intangible resources.   The occurrences of spatially-interconnected thresholds thus provide both the means and the places where these resources can be properly engaged.  This, by far, is the most important factor in the discussion of the Auckland Waterfront’s occurrences of public space – they must exist in conjunction with the movement of people, ideally connected to existing and proposed mass transit.  This enacts public space’s right to separate elements as a place of suspension and transition.

The architecture of the Auckland CBD and its transportation typologies are therefore examples of HARD INFRASTRUCTURE as they are nodes of operations.  (While it is true that transportation is also considered a path of travel, the foundation of this article is on public space and therefore focuses on public foot traffic between instances of hard infrastructure.)  Comparatively, the waterfront districts may be viewed as areas of SOFT INFRASTRUCTURE, standing as a fusion of meeting places and public amenities.  These lie between the transportation typologies and the mechanisms of the city.10   The soft infrastructure of public spaces engages its occupants differently than any presupposed social, family, and professional spheres occurring elsewhere.  The act of exchange of intangible resources then propels occupants fully into grasps of strangers, giving ingrained creative defaults the chance to be contested.11   The serendipity – the happenstance – is given a chance to materialize, connecting all who participate.

Agents of change

The trend of progressive city governments allowing for public participation in urban planning has seen widespread increases since the 1960s, with recent occurrences finding strength in the rise of a well-informed creative class of citizens.12   Efforts to include such members of the public during the initial planning phases could serve to neutralize priority shifts made exclusive of stakeholders who may not, in turn, see a need for public space beyond minimum planning legislation requirements.13   However, most administrating bodies can certainly point towards the financial burden of including public dialogue within these phases,14  which, if countered with general ambivalence, will hardly result in the design of areas which succinctly fit into the local fabric.  

Government transparency is a cost to bear, however, it is funded by Ratepayers.  The value of this process is more easily measured if it isn’t undertaken, simply by counting what society will stand to lose.  Physical form notwithstanding, the critical offense is in a loss of cultural fidelity, be it generic or specified, directly affecting one’s ability to comfortably dwell within the surrounding urban landscape.  One’s orientation within this space is predicated by how he or she perceives the aforementioned exchange of resources, serving to connect and define personal acceptance of their own position within the given landscape.15   As public interests see greater consideration during planning and design of public spaces there is potential for stronger cohesion, culturally.  With their origin based on the apparatuses of cultural perception, physical form, proportion, and composition can more appropriately respond to the site they now inhabit as an extension of the people who occupy the space.16
Public influence on the creation of public spaces then becomes a question of social sustainability where success measured by a better sense of community.17   Certainly for the Auckland Waterfront, commercial and private interests have been given priority as the identification of public space is limited by questions of ownership.  To generate social sustainability is to allow for greater inclusion of all members of the public, stemming from its immediately recognisable spatial availability.

While the Auckland governing body has, since 1871, made changes to the face of the city’s waterfront for various economic and event-based development, there still exists a general failing to provide ‘distinctly Auckland’ public spaces which might advocate community-building behaviour.18   It is possible that this stems from the absence of public collaboration and therefore public interests, standing in severe contrast to the Auckland City Council’s declaration for a now completed phase of development in Wynyard Quarter:

“A world class destination that excites the senses and celebrates our sealoving Pacific culture and maritime history, commercially successful and innovative; a place for all people, rich in character and activity that truly links people, city and the sea.” 19  

It is also possible that the issue lies on the extent of waterfront planning thus far, which has yet to connect the entire area due to observed piecemeal outputs.  The pragmatic solutions which master planning can offer are attractive by promoting a singular vision, however as circumstances change and funding allows, overarching visions can be rendered obsolete as soon as they are published.  And it is not the position of this author to promote master planning as the empirical directive of cause and effect upon the Auckland Waterfront’s design.  It is more practical to allow a single physical element which engages the entire site as a whole to implement the planning and design of residual spaces surrounding it.  The gulf – the water – is one such element, however critical disconnects shaped by fragmented accessible spaces along its border currently eliminate it as a possible driver.  A more appropriate element might be the existing collection of transportation typologies, for which a case has been previously presented in this article covering their viability as a designator of public space.  For effect, emphasis should be placed on fixed-structure mass transit, such as trams and light rail, and along the same lines, public pathways of significant size and amenity.


The necessity of cohesion across the entire length of the Auckland Waterfront is more apparent when looking towards the two major stakeholders, Waterfront Auckland (Auckland City Council) and Ports of Auckland, and the proposed development occurring within their own borders.  Individually, the proposals have all the ingredients for success, but these require much greater scrutiny from members of the public, both the informed professional and the uninformed layman, the latter being the more frequent occupier of these areas once completed.  The public requires that the development proposed within these respective boundaries still connect, visually and actually.

Waterfront Auckland & Auckland City Council

Waterfront Auckland’s Waterfront Plan 2012 publication is a master plan which covers many fixed design initiatives to occur along the waterfront until 2042.21 Neighbourhoods are defined – Westhaven Area, Wynyard Quarter, Viaduct Marina, Central Wharves, and Quay Park Quarter – and implied to connect.22   Some are quite successful based on their immediate proximity to one another, especially in the mass of reclaimed land surrounding Wynyard Quarter and The Viaduct.  Features include further development of Silo Park for public space and a secondary international passenger ship dock.23   The Central Wharves, defined along Quay Street between Lower Hobson Street and Britomart Place, is far less connected as a thinner stretch of land.24   Incidentally, this is an area of high value as the main threshold between international and domestic passenger ships and the CBD, but contains little in the way of existing or proposed public space.  Further east, the Quay Park Quarter sees further spatial compression, contained between the port’s red-fenced areas and the Tamaki Drive to Quay Street traffic.25   Though many businesses have frontages along Quay Street they are not activated, with many relying entirely on their Tyler Street and Scene Lane entrances.  Vector Arena, a key event centre, is connected to this corridor only through a single crossing over the adjacent rail line.  Teal Park, now and as proposed, will forever be cut out of the picture which Waterfront Auckland is hoping to paint.

This corridor along Quay Street is undoubtedly limited on space but still contains high value public space potential if the vehicular traffic is addressed; limited, redirected, or eliminated entirely.  The knowledge of this by Waterfront Auckland may be why in July 2014, Auckland City Council issued a request for expressions of interest for the redevelopment of Quay Street.27   While this appears to be another piece to the fragmented urban planning puzzle, this latest action promises to allow residents to state their opinions on the resulting schematic designs before finalisation is reached.28   Waterfront Auckland took a similar approach during the drafting of its Waterfront Plan 2012 resulting in a rather insignificant amount of public responses towards their design initiatives.29The workshops conducted by the Auckland City Council in 2007, which would eventually lay the groundwork for this waterfront planning document, were undertaken with zero public participation.30   The question remains to what extent the public are being involved, with these two initiatives pointing towards only a small amount of public influence.  Perhaps those who are initiating the initiatives have a greater responsibility to include the populous that will populate the space.

Earlier council schematic designs along the Quay Street corridor between 2012 and 2013 failed to reflect the need for cohesive design, being little more than a few aesthetic changes than wholesale planning across the entire site. 31 Beyond misappropriations of vehicular and mass transit traffic alongside highly-active pedestrian crossings, a dearth of public-oriented resource exchanges are the result of inadequate place-making.  Quite simply, proposals like this one and the processes from which it resulted could be localised anywhere, completely lacking an Auckland distinction.  Without strong linkages between the physical space and perceptual place, the result is nothing more than a series of obstacles which cannot be occupied.32   A dialogue must exist with the resources this landscape is to be characterised by, in this case with emphasis on the pool of users, supported by the body of planning and design professionals.  In this way, the idea of the exchange of intangible resources goes beyond this article’s originally-defined classification and points towards the process of designing public spaces as an additional transaction.  Public space survives in a constant state of frantic trade, from conception to disassembly, using people as its most common form of currency.

Ports of Auckland

WPorts of Auckland, as a company, is an entirely different Wstakeholder along the waterfront than Waterfront Auckland and as such have a very different relationship with the public.  While Waterfront Auckland is an extension of the publically-elected
Wcity council, Ports of Auckland need only to operate within the minimum standards set by local, regional, and national governments in terms of environmental and economic controls.  Their base of operations are located on the north side of Quay Street, between Britomart Place and Teal Park, standing as the greatest condenser of the space along that corridor.  They have much to gain from working with the public outside of their physical boundaries and comfort zones, however may not have the incentive to do so.

Replacing the 2012 planning initiative which met with harsh public criticism, in 2013 Ports of Auckland released the Ports of Auckland Development Proposals document on the basis of a renewed focus.34   A similar document commission by the Upper North Island Strategic Alliance in 2012 also exists entitled How Can We Meet Increasing Demand for Ports in the Upper North Island?, prepared by Pricewaterhouse Coopers.35   Both documents spend the bulk of their capacity explaining the necessity for port expansion and how its effects can be limited on the environment while increasing revenue.  What neither document touches on is the effects of these development proposals on the public, specifically on public perception of public space.

Cases which cover economic and environmental sustainability are hot topics.  Cities must contend with providing more jobs, housing, and transit options while reducing waste, increasing green spaces, and regulating emissions.  And Ports of Auckland continues this trend by suggesting that minimal expansion and more efficient processes are the key to meeting proposed future demand; the creation of a smarter port.36   Expansion to Bledisloe Wharf, as suggested in one of the current options, would result in a 179-meter reclamation of land.37   Environmental effects aside, the creation of a better operating peripheral community under this port expansion proposal is left out of the equation.  Addressing the issues along Quay Street have the potential for a different type of spatial reclamation which Auckland City Council might use as mitigation between the public and Ports of Auckland; for every meter of port reclamation, perhaps a percentage could be gained for this corridor’s own expansion.
Learning from toronto & wellington

An interesting precedent in the public participation in design is the Toronto Waterfront Innovative Design Competition.  Held in 2006, the competition successfully concluded more than three decades of little progression due to political congestion and fragmented design contributions.39   Public involvement transpired over a period of two weeks through city-wide exhibitions and a public forum.  Though not obliged to mirror the public sentiment, the competition jury selected the local favourite as it displayed a “simple and consistent approach to the public realm.”40   The winning project – a joint venture between Rotterdam-based WEST 8 and Toronto-based DU TOIT ALLSOPP HILLIER – included five key design strategies:  1) the continuation of a trans-harbour pedestrian/bicycle path, 2) a reduction in vehicular traffic by removing two lanes of traffic, 3) adding open grassy areas under tramways, 4) widening of pedestrian pathways, and 5) adding public spaces to the end of wharf areas.41   
It is easy to note where each of these design strategies might find a presence in connecting the entirety of the Auckland Waterfront.  Both of these city’s waterfronts have been formed along a predominately linear assembly and are of similar scale.  Such elongated forms over a single dominate axis struggle to aid in personal orientation over to whole of the site, due in part to a perceived instability.42   Toronto’s contention with this issue resulted in stronger intermittent place-making opportunities, seen through successful connections of different districts by a multi-layered series of pedestrian and bicycle pathways.  Being laid out in series, these districts’ inherent actions and activity planning have demanded differing character from that of their adjacencies, offering reasons for continued personal exploration of the waterfront.43

Contrastingly, the nearby Wellington Waterfront displays a weaker arrangement of delineated areas that can be largely ignored because of its concave orientation, harbouring a clear perceptual centre localised around the Museum of New Zealand.  Each space, though widely ranging in purpose and layout, crowd one another in such a way that there is little transitional space between the districts.  As such, they are not able to be individually perceived; only overlapping pieces to an overall composition.  And though opinions of Wellington’s waterfront may be of the fullness and variety of the public areas, it is only about one-third the size of Toronto’s waterfront and one-half that of Auckland’s as defined by this article.  Beyond this small area, Wellington does not successfully connect the peripheral arms of its outer urban areas with the centralized waterfront, such as Westpac Stadium to the north and the further eastern fringes of Oriental Parade.


There is much to contend with along the Auckland Waterfront – the traffic of resources, urban morphology and change, transportation demands, public spheres of influence, and multiple stakeholders – which will continue to press different agendas.  The practice of social sustainability is a solid datum upon which to test urban planning initiatives, signifying the quality of Auckland’s diverse communities as a measure of urban success.  Auckland is poised to pursue public-oriented design methodology than ever before, as a renegotiation of who are the true clients of its waterfront – council, developers, private ownership, or the public.  
By learning from Toronto we see the evidence of public spaces as city-defining elements, promoting a quality of life they through intangible resource exchange.45   The travel thresholds held at bay by these spaces become activated by simple human desire towards the unreachable, in this instance, the next featured district.46   The perceived difficulty of the Auckland Waterfront’s linear form now makes a resounding case for this corridor to fuse movement along the perimeter of the CBD.  Possibilities of spatial reclamation serve to address the diminished Quay Street corridor, activating ground floor commercial enterprises and creating actual connections to Teal Park.  In this way, the waterfront can fully accept its transitional fringe belt role as being on the way to other points of interest.
It is important to establish a continuing discourse where additional methodology may be suggested, focusing on three key effects:  

First, the Auckland Waterfront must have a clear definition of its role as a transitional threshold within the greater urban spectrum.  It is evident that we may delineate its linearity with public spaces emerging alongside of fixed-structure mass transit.  These spaces are for the exchange of intangible resources and are intrinsically public, both for and designed by.

Second, the Auckland Waterfront must mature its activity districts to be understood individually and whose transitional boundaries activate perceptive desire.  Many of these districts are already formed, lacking only a definitive boundary to act as a method of orientation along this very linear site.  Referring directly to the soft infrastructure systems, this implies visualization of the waterfront at multiple human scales.  

Lastly, the Auckland Waterfront must create a place of distinction within the Auckland and further New Zealand cultural milieu.  Place-making delineation will emerge from the lasting effects of exchange, forming the spatial dynamism and cultural edifices which will define the ensuing public spaces.47