A Tactical Emergency

Al Newsome



Ambiguous urban public space, often created by a layered process of circumstance, is able to give us its specificity, its uniqueness (or indeed its sameness or monotony) because of the nature of its accessibility. We can all see it and, to some extent, engage with it.  By giving us this access it has already yielded some of its emergent capabilities, even at only a glimpse. It may however, be accessible, but is it a ‘successful’ space?

If we are willing and able to harness this emergent personality to allow the idea of a city as a mesh of interconnected systems, pressures and processes to guide our design thinking we may have the opportunity to go lighter, faster, and cheaper into possible treatments for our urban surfaces. By doing so we could also be more effective as designers rather than using ‘top down’, monolithic approaches which are not only financially costly but also prone to ‘design by committee’ ‘one size fits all’ drawbacks. 


By studying the relationships between various factors, for example politics, economic ebb and flow, ecological, cultural and scientific changes, can we potentially avoid large scale mistakes and genuinely design for the future? 

In the case of Chancery Street/Bacon’s Lane in Auckland’s CBD, an opportunity was seen in a small network of unloved streets.Surrounded on all sides by some of New Zealand’s most visited and valued public landscapes, yet itself the victim of precisely the kind of inattention that emergent design is aimed at overcoming. 

Few would argue that the CBD of 2035 will look as it does now. The snapping synapses of change will brush aside once immutable truths. In 20 years the massive car parks that dominate Chancery Street may well be legacy buildings with alternative uses and the cheek by jowl, claustrophobic passages which characterised the site in the 19th century may once again come to the fore. Of course there is the chance that it may not change but it is precisely for that reason that there must be a way of testing out that theory without risking millions of dollars. Designing for the future means taking that constant layering of use and dis-use into account. Small scale and localised, rather than large and overwhelming. While we can be influenced by and leverage ideas from its locality, what gives Chancery Lane its identity should be something that only Chancery Street can give, not something imported from another street or place no matter how local or international. 

No one factor has led to changing emphasises in Auckland CBD. For example, Takutai Square and Britomart have risen out of the ashes of historical foreshore reclamation, dilapidated bus station and ambiguous ‘other’. What has led to the re-focussing of attention away from areas such as High Street is arguably many things but none of them act singularly, they emerge, as do the spaces they create. 

In regard to Chancery Street, again, rather than repave and ‘upgrade’ as per O’Connell Street or ‘build it and they will approach’, another way of tackling this street’s lack of purpose is to help define it by its use, by encouraging people to engage with it. It has the ability to leverage off the very things which currently frame its lack of use, O’Connell Street and pre-upgrade Freyberg Square. However, it can only do this with help, through bringing both visual indicators and street events based on appropriate and imaginative use of the sites topography and existing linkages to give purpose to Chancery Street.