Ever since the Town Hall was built on that odd triangle between converging streets half way up Queen St Auckland has failed to successfully find an important central location that can be considered its spiritual locus. A civic heart: A public space for those collective experiences; celebrations, protests, that everyone automatically understands is the right and fitting place. Unusually Auckland was poorly served by our Victorian and Edwardian city builders in this regard. Their great works are all distributed and largely disconnected; Albert Park, CPO, Town Hall, and Art Gallery/Library. Significantly Auckland has never really been sure where its heart is.
Auckland Plan 1841 Felton Mathew
Felton Mathew, the city’s first surveyor, saw the ridge of Hobson St as the commercial and administrative centre, so proposed two fine and central squares to interrupt the north south flow with ‘place’ there. No doubt he was keen to get the great and good away from the waterway of Waihorotiu in the Queen Street gully; he placed the quality residences on the opposing ridge, about where Albert Park came to be. Incidentally his roots in the city of Bath with its fine curving Georgian terraces is clearly visible in this scheme.
Only a few parts of this plan eventuated, Waterloo Quadrant being the most obvious, and the main affairs of the city gradually congealed along Queen St, especially once the open sewer that Waihorotui became was finally piped in the 1890s [“That abomination, the Ligar Canal, is still a pestiferous ditch, the receptacle of every Imaginable filth, bubbling in the noonday sun”]. But also up Shortland St, the city’s best professional address and then to Princess St to the grand city houses of the early magnates.
Queen Street welcome US fleet August 1908
The inter-bellum years brought even more dispersal of public building with the placement of the Museum in the Domain and the disaster of moving the Railway Station out of town without building the proposed inner-city passenger tunnel. The attempts at civic placemaking in the Modern era gave us the mess we are now trying to undo: Aotea and QE II Squares.
These have always been soulless places that have failed to earn their hoped for roles as loved and functioning public spaces. The first a formless mess leading to a building with all the utility and charm of a 1970s high school science block; relentlessly horizontal and without ceremony or focal point. The Town Hall itself is so busy sailing down the old stream bed of Waihorotui and opening a-midships on the other side that it may as well not be there [can't we make some kind of use of the bow of this ship? Open a cafe onto the Square through some of those blind openings....?]. Aotea is better now than it’s ever been, after much rebuilding, but is still inherently unable to inspire.
And QE II suffers from containment by buildings of Olympian blandness, that anyway offer nothing but mall food or the blank wall of office blocks, add to that it’s famously shaded, hideously paved, sorrowfully treed, and otherwise peperpotted with meaningless objects and host to that awful and useless over-scaled glass and steel inverted L ….. frankly that it is mainly used by tradies to park on almost elevates the place.
The theme that unites these sad attempts at public space is that they were both built at the full blaze of the auto-age. Both are defined by the dominating theme of vehicles first. Aotea is of course just the roof of a garage, how could anyone be expected to use a public square with being able to park right there? The other disaster that still defines and keeps the square sub-optimal is the severing ring road of Mayoral Drive that cuts it off on two sides. There is no way that the small amount of carriageway be taken over for people without expanding roadspace nearby first.
Queens St from Town Hall Nov 1963
QE II Square has a more chequered history. When the CPO was an important building of state [built on the site of Auckland's first train station] it was a busy wide street, first with trams and general traffic:
Then just general traffic:
CPO Lower Queen
Then with the amalgamation of the opposite Downtown site in the 1970s the street in front of the CPO was pedestrianised. Great history of this process here, a window onto the forces that formed the places of this period. And this was the result:
The idea of a public plaza in front of the CPO was logical: It is directly in front of the large and traditional looking public building, like in any European city the old CPO grand and important enough like a ‘Rathaus’ in a northern European city, or, at a pinch, the cathedrals and churches of southern and central Europe, that provide the focus for great public squares.
Yet this space was forgettable; it didn’t work. The great problem was that over the whole period of its existence the importance of the CPO declined right down to closure. So the potential of this space for meaning and centrality could never get going. Additionally it was designed like a suburban shopping centre, just like the new mall on the otherside too which didn’t help, but really its great problem is that it was pretty much nowhere. So its loss wasn’t mourned when the buses were returned as part of the invention of Britomart Station. Even though all we were left with was the terrible sunless end of the Square as it is now.
Which is ironic really because the kind of civic space that I am arguing Auckland critically lacks needs to be the placed at the front door of some kind of busy and important public building like a Train Station. Because now there are people, lots and lots of people, using that grand old pile. All thanks to the ever growing success of the revived passenger rail network. This is what works in those European cities that Aucklanders love to visit, as shown in Warren’s post about northern Europe. This space is at last in the right place to become the locus for all kinds of beginnings; celebrations, protests, welcomes.
It’s a good shape too: There’s a standard rule of thumb about building height relative to its approaching horizontal space that says a good place to start is if these are roughly equal. And it looks to me like the old CPO is as about as high as Lower Queen St is wide. And if Auckland doesn’t start, in every sense, at the sea at the bottom of Queen St then I don’t what it is. The fact that it isn’t large I feel will be an advantage most of the time; it’ll never be empty, and for those big occasions the plan is to close Quay St to both expand the space and complete the connection with the water’s edge.
This plaza should be able to succeed as the ‘Marae’ to Britomart’s ‘Wharenui’. And, for big processions actually link all the way up to Aotea Square, especially when we do the thinkable and get the cars out of the rest of flat section of Queen St.
So the plan is a good one:
1. to repair the western street edge of Lower Queen St with activated retail entrances
2. insert new streets through the Downtown site [not internal mall spaces; at least one proper open air public street]
3. return Britomart’s forecourt to being a public square
4. while expanding and improving the water’s edge public spaces
All at the cost of the current QEII Square.
However there is one vital condition to the proposals as set out in the Framework process that I believe has to be properly dealt with in order for any of this to work. Summed up in one word: Buses.
Where do the buses go? We are told Lower Albert St, all through Britomart, including Galway and Tyler Sts, and Customs St. This just doesn’t add up on any level. It isn’t desirable, already the narrow streets behind the Station are degraded by the numbers of buses turning, stopping, idling. The new plaza in front of Britomart will be reduced in utility and attractiveness by buses exiting Galway and Tyler Streets, even if they no longer cross in front of the old CPO itself. Lower Albert St just can’t that many stops.
This whole scheme, in my view, can only work if there is a seriously effective solution to the bus problem, which means a proper station somewhere proximate, as well as a hard headed approach to terminating suburban bus routes at the new bus/train interchange stations like Panmure, Otahuhu, New Lynn, and Mt Albert, etc, in order to maximise access to the city while limiting the huge volumes of buses dominating inner city streets. Howick and Eastern services, for example, could go on to Ellerslie from Panmure then across town instead of into the city. Or simply return to the south east to increase frequency massively on their core route having dropped off passengers to the city at Panmure Station.
Helsinki [pop: 600k], for example, terminated its city bus routes at stations when it built it’s metro system in the 1980s, as well as making an underground bus station for those services that remain:
Many of the buses operating in eastern Helsinki act as feeder lines for the Helsinki Metro. Nearly all other routes have the other end of their lines in the downtown near the Helsinki Central railway station. Such exceptions are present as dedicated lines operating directly from a suburb to another past the centre
Britomart and the improving rail system helps take both cars and buses off the road it will be a long time before the CRL is open and we can use the spatial efficiency of underground rail to replace exponentially more surface vehicles. And even longer again before a rail line to the Shore will be built, and even then there will still be a need for buses.
Because we have refused to invest in permanent solutions to city access like the many underground rail proposals over the years it has now become urgent to get much more serious about how we manage the inevitable boom in bus demand. This issue was disguised for years by the decline of the Central City, or at least its failure to thrive; strangled by motorways, and deadened by street traffic as it has been over my life time. But now its revival is thankfully strong and clearly desirable, the City and the State will have to, literally, dig deep, to keep it moving. After all, all New Zealand needs a thriving Auckland and:
‘Transportation technologies have always determined urban form’
-Economist Ed Glaeser The Triumph of the City P12
While addressing these near term street level issues it is important to keep a thought for an ideal longer term outcome. Here is the kind of treatment that could ultimately work well for central city Auckland.
Shared Space with modern Light Rail, Angers, France
This could be Queen St, but is only possible once the high capacity and high frequency of both the longer distance rail network is running underground, and the widespread reach of the bus system is similarly properly supported in the City Centre. This type of system is for local distribution not commuting.