Story: City public spaces

Page 4. Streets, avenues and pedestrian spaces

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Early streets

New Zealand cities were nearly all built to rectilinear plans, with streets laid out like a grid. In some towns extra-wide streets were laid out to meet expected growth, providing ample breadth for trees and verges when aspirations proved elusive. In Cambridge, in Waikato, trees were planted on either side of several principal streets, giving welcome shade on hot days.

Going native

In 2005 plans to replace exotic trees with native species along Auckland’s Queen St created uproar. Critics declared the city council was driven by ‘misguided nationalism’ and felling the trees would be ‘mass vandalism’. The city council was unrepentant, stating the natives would give the street a ‘distinctly Auckland’ flavour. The felling proceeded and a group of 47 nīkau palms, shipped from the West Coast and Taranaki, were transplanted along the street in 2007.

Tree planting was also encouraged by the ‘city beautiful’ movement in the 1890s to soften the appearance of built-up areas. In Christchurch, the central city was bounded by four wide streets – Fitzgerald, Moorhouse, Bealey and Rolleston – parts of which were planted with oaks to form avenues.

After the First World War some streets were planted as memorial avenues. In Ōamaru, Severn St was lined with trees named for individual North Otago war dead.

Motorised streets

In the 19th century streets were important public spaces. People would stop and converse in the middle of thoroughfares, with traffic winding around them. Streets were also children’s playgrounds, places to play cricket, football, marbles and imaginary games.

The rise of the motorcar from the 1920s made streets more dangerous for play and socialising. Pedestrians were sidelined to footpaths and busy streets were given over to traffic. In quieter streets children continued play games like street cricket, moving over to the curb when a car approached. By the early 2000s rising traffic volumes on streets had largely curtailed street play.

Rattled ratepayer

The creation of Cuba Mall was not welcomed by all. One ratepayer wrote: ‘I strongly object to changing Cuba Street into a mall and re-routing the buses. This would not only cause more trouble from drunks and deter people from shopping there. The mall will only be a one-day wonder and all the seats in the mall will be taken by the young. It is a mistake.’1

Pedestrianised streets

When Wellington’s Cuba Street was closed to traffic in 1965 to remove tram lines, reformers suggested making the change permanent, to make it more pedestrian-friendly. In 1969 a section of the street was closed to form Cuba Mall. It quickly proved popular among shoppers and the idea was copied by other cities.

Christchurch closed sections of High and Cashel streets in 1982 to create City Mall, with new paving, public seating. The new space was bisected by busy Colombo St, which remained open to traffic. The mall became a flagship destination in the city, a popular place to meet and watch the street life. In 2009 it was revamped to make it more inviting, with new lighting, street furniture and landscaping.

Many cities now restrict traffic access to areas of the central business district to give higher priority to people on foot.

Street art

The growth of street sculpture from the 1980s improved the aesthetic experience of city public spaces. Some notable works include Neil Dawson’s ‘Ferns’ (1998) above Wellington’s Civic Square; and Phil Price’s ‘Nucleus’ (2006), a wind-driven kinetic sculpture in Christchurch’s High St.


In the 2000s many New Zealand towns and cities now include walkways developed alongside streams and wetlands for public recreation. Christchurch’s Travis Wetland Walkway was the first of several designed by the city council to give public access to previously neglected areas.

  1. Evening Post, 9 October 1968. Back
How to cite this page:

Geoffrey Rice, 'City public spaces - Streets, avenues and pedestrian spaces', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Geoffrey Rice, published 11 Mar 2010