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City public spaces

by Geoffrey Rice

In the midst of the bustling city, places to relax or sit down can be like a breath of fresh air. Public spaces are also used for entertainment, protests and other community gatherings. They come in many sizes, from tiny squares to large parks, and can include waterfronts, streets and public buildings.

Public spaces and public buildings

What are public spaces?

Public spaces are areas of cities that are publicly owned or can be accessed by the public. These include streets, squares, parks, waterfronts, and public buildings such as town halls and libraries. Usually these spaces are publicly owned but some, such as shopping malls, are privately owned.

Public spaces contribute to the functioning of cities and enhance their vitality. Streets connect private spaces (homes and workplaces) and enable the flow of people and traffic. Public buildings such as council offices, law courts and post offices support the government and administration of cities. Other public buildings, including museums, art galleries, churches and concert halls, enrich a city’s cultural life. Squares, parks and waterfronts are places for people to socialise, play and rest.

They can also be forums for public meetings, protests and civic events such as outdoor concerts, which can give city dwellers with a wider sense of community. For these reasons city dwellers are normally protective of their public spaces. The loss of public space – through encroachments, blockages or privatisation – can be fiercely resisted.

Public buildings

Public buildings are either publicly owned or used for government functions. New Zealand’s earliest public buildings were usually temporary wooden structures such as land offices and customhouses. Public halls were financed by public subscriptions, and schools were often assisted by government subsidies.

Built to impress

When it opened in 1876 Wellington’s Government Buildings was the largest in the country – a fitting symbol of the importance of the state in New Zealand life. The building included two staircases, eight vaults, 143 rooms, 126 fireplaces, 22 chimneys, two hydraulic lifts, 64 toilets, eight verandahs and seven porticos. Initially, it housed all government departments, but by 1976 only the Education Department remained. In the 2000s, it houses the Victoria University Law School.

Government offices

As the population increased, so too did the role of government. In the era of provincial government (1852–76), provinces constructed government offices – at first of wood, and later of stone or masonry. The debating chamber of the 1865 Canterbury Provincial Buildings (the only surviving complete complex) is New Zealand’s finest example of Gothic revival public architecture. New Zealand’s largest wooden public building is the Old Government Buildings in Wellington.

Other government buildings

As central government expanded, public buildings became larger and grander. Nearly every major post office had a tall clock tower – to show the time, but also signal the importance of the institution in daily life.

Other buildings reflected the power and prestige of central government departments. Dunedin retains the country’s most grandiose railway station, built in 1906 when Railways was the largest department.

As local government grew, town halls, fire stations, museums, public libraries and orphanages joined the list of public buildings. In the 2000s Wellington’s Town Hall, built in 1904, still boasted one of the finest auditoriums in the country.

Parliamentary buildings

When Wellington became the capital in 1865, Parliament sat in the Wellington provincial council chambers. These burnt down in 1907 and were replaced with the present neo-classical structure, which was completed in 1920 – though it lacked one wing of the original design. New Zealand’s most iconic public building, The Beehive, was erected on the site of the uncompleted wing. Opened in 1977, it houses the offices of the prime minister and some cabinet ministers.

New designs

Between the world wars, public buildings adopted new architectural styles. In rebuilding Napier after the 1931 earthquake, art deco predominated, influencing a generation of rebuilt post offices, law courts and public libraries until the 1960s.

American skyscraper designs became influential from the 1950s. The Government Life building (1964) in Cathedral Square was Christchurch’s first example of a modernist glass box. Again, these new buildings showed the growth of the state. As central government became more involved in everyday life, greater space was required to house those who managed services from schools to airlines.

Municipal buildings also followed new styles. Whanganui’s War Memorial Hall led the way with a landmark modernist design in 1955. Christchurch’s new town hall (1972) was also built in a modernist style, as were new public libraries in Gisborne and Ōamaru. Such buildings considerably enhanced the public spaces and cultural life of cities.

Te Papa (the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1998) and the Supreme Court (2009) were notable public buildings of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Public squares

In Europe many towns and cities were laid out around public or market squares, which became the civic, commercial and social hub of communities. This tradition has influenced the shape of New Zealand towns and cities.

A bustling square


In the late 19th century, Cathedral Square was the heart of Christchurch. It was a place of sideshows, buskers, speakers on soap boxes, cattle and sheep markets, as well as country fairs. The city’s main post office was in one corner and coaches, trams, and cabs left from the square.


Public reserves and squares

The earliest public reserves in new towns were for public buildings such as land offices, law courts and police stations. Market places were also set aside, where farmers could sell fresh produce to the townsfolk. These were logical sites for a post office, where people met to exchange the latest gossip and do business.

Plans for public squares in Auckland and Wellington were shelved when the land was deemed too valuable for public use and sold. Christchurch was laid out around a central square (Cathedral Square), as was Palmerston North – although until 1960 it was bisected by a busy railway line.

In the 2000s the tradition of the central square continued in plans for new towns, such as Pegasus, near Christchurch.

Jeweller’s corner


Particular street corners have long been popular city meeting places. In the early 1900s the Australasian jeweller Stewart Dawson recognised their commercial value, buying up the most popular sites in the main cities and renaming them after himself. In the 21st century the corner of Willis St and Lambton Quay in Wellington is still known as ‘Stewart Dawson’s corner’.


Street corners

As towns grew, some open spaces at major intersections became important meeting places. The corner of Fort and Queen streets in Auckland was an early meeting place for Māori, some of whom sold produce from the site. The Exchange, a triangle of land on the corner of Princes and High streets, was the hub of Dunedin’s financial district and a popular meeting point. The elaborate Cargill Monument was moved there in 1872, providing a welcome place to sit and chat. The exchange remained a popular public space in the early 2000s.

Civic squares

For a long time, there were no large public squares in Auckland and Wellington to act as focal points for civic events, social life and celebrations. This changed with the completion of Auckland’s Aotea Square in 1979 and Wellington’s Civic Square in 1992. Both spaces became rallying points for public protests and celebrations, but have been less successful as social hubs: places to meet, chat and pass time. Periodic attempts to encourage social life – through markets, food stalls, street theatre – have had mixed success. A redevelopment designed to breathe new life into Aotea Square began in 2008.

Small squares

More thriving than large squares are what might be termed ‘micro-squares’ – small pedestrian areas with or without trees, a pool or fountain. Public seating encourages office workers to eat their lunch in these spaces. Freyberg Place in central Auckland has a paved area around a statue of soldier and Governor-General Bernard Freyberg, with gardens and fountains, cafés, restaurants and fashion boutiques. The trees of St Patrick’s Square in Auckland provide shade for weary shoppers in summertime, and quiet spaces where people can meet and talk. Dunedin’s leafy Octagon is also a social hub.

Statues and sculpture

City squares are also sites for public sculpture, statues and memorials. Cathedral Square in Christchurch features a statue of Robert Godley – the founder of the Canterbury settlement – and a war memorial beside the cathedral. At the Queen Street entrance of Auckland’s Aotea Square is an elaborate waharoa (gateway) by Māori artist Selwyn Muru.

Shopping malls as public squares

Shopping malls have been called the modern-day public square: the commercial and social hub of communities. Sheltered from the weather and protected by private security guards, shoppers often say they feel safer than on traditional shopping streets. A major drawcard is the food court – a dining area encircled by fast-food outlets. They are often busy, with individuals and family groups sitting at tables, eating and talking. Shopping malls have become popular meeting places for all age groups, from school pupils meeting after school, to retired people with time on their hands.

However, shopping malls are privately owned commercial property. Managers can exclude those they consider undesirable, such as protesters. There are few places to sit and linger other than the food court, which has an implicit obligation to buy. The cadence of the street and open air is replaced by muzak. Malls are more uniform and less varied than traditional public squares.

Shoplifting is a major problem for mall managers and retail owners. Reluctant to call the police, for fear of frightening shoppers away, most malls now use closed-circuit television surveillance and private security guards to spot offenders and deal with them quietly – further compromising the illusion of public space.

Parks and gardens

The early surveyors who laid out the streets for New Zealand’s four main centres were conscious of the need to provide open public spaces for future parks and gardens. In Christchurch, Hagley Park was included in the first town plan as a large public space to the west of the town centre. In the 2000s it remains the country’s largest inner-city park (165 hectares). Auckland’s Domain (75 hectares) comes a distant second.

These public spaces were often used as sports grounds in the 19th century – for cricket in the summer and rugby in the winter. Some were used for horse racing, which is why Hastings has its racecourse so close to the town centre.

Wellington and Dunedin were encircled by green public reserves known as town belts.

Botanical gardens

Gardens were part of the Arcadian vision brought to New Zealand by British settlers eager to make a fresh start in a new land. They were keen to avoid the pollution and overcrowding of Britain’s industrial cities.

As early as 1855 government surveyor Alfred Domett set aside 7.3 hectares in Napier for a future botanical garden. However, the first such gardens to be established in New Zealand were in Dunedin and Christchurch in 1863. Botanical gardens were closely associated with the 19th-century acclimatisation movement, which encouraged the introduction of European plants, birds, animals and fish to the colony.

Parks or heritage?

During the 1980s there were battles between heritage and green-space advocates in central Wellington. The green brigade had the first win when it convinced the city council to raze Lambton’s Quay’s historic Midland Hotel for an inner-city park – Midland Park. The heritage brigade fought back, defeating a proposal to demolish the historic Bank of New Zealand head office for another park further along the quay. A truce was called and energies were redirected to creating more green space on the city’s waterfront.

City parks

By 1900 New Zealand was much influenced by the ‘city beautiful’ movement, which promoted parks and gardens as recreation spaces for jaded office and factory workers. Parks were spoken of as the lungs of cities – places of retreat away from city pollutants.

Municipal authorities began to spend more on maintaining lawns, flower beds, ponds, fountains, paths and seating. Tourism encouraged beautification at particular sites, for example the Government Gardens at Rotorua.

Pigeon Park dissenters

Some parks became places of protest and dissent. Wellington’s Pigeon Park (now Te Aro Park) was a popular spot for soapbox orators. In 1941 pacifist Archibald Barrington was arrested and imprisoned after speaking out against the Second World War in the park. It has also long been a place where the city’s homeless gather and drink, periodically sparking debate about ‘suitable’ uses of public space.

Memorial parks

Parks became favoured sites for war memorials and statues of local dignitaries. Auckland’s Domain provides a magnificent setting for its cenotaph and War Memorial Museum.

Smaller towns such as Stratford and Greymouth erected memorial gates at the entrances to parks. Hamilton has Memorial Gardens and Soldiers’ Memorial Park on the east bank of the Waikato River. Large crowds gather at these memorials every Anzac Day.


Brass bands were popular in New Zealand from earliest settlement, and many parks built band rotundas for weekend or holiday concerts. Sound shells (covered stages facing a lawn or amphitheatre) served a similar purpose.

Wellington’s sound shell in the Botanic Gardens is the hub of the Summer City programme of outdoor concerts. Such events grew more popular in the 1990s as a way of bringing citizens together and fostering a sense of community. Christmas in the Park is held annually in the Auckland Domain and attracts tens of thousands of people. Nelson’s New Year Jazzfest features concerts at various public parks around the city and region.

Cemeteries and churches

In the 2000s cemeteries are often overlooked as important public spaces. In Victorian and Edwardian times Sunday afternoons used to be set aside for families to visit the cemetery to remember lost loved ones and the pioneering generation.

Churches and their grounds are often open to the public as places of retreat, rest and recreation.

Streets, avenues and pedestrian spaces

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

Beaches, shorelines and waterfronts

Beaches and shorelines

Beaches are among the most popular public spaces in cities and towns. Every summer bathing beaches – such as Nelson’s Tāhunanui, Dunedin’s St Clair, and Auckland’s Takapuna beaches – are invaded by thousands of people in search of sun and surf. Recreational fishing has been a public use of the shoreline ever since the start of European settlement.

Some beaches are important public spaces all year round. Christchurch’s New Brighton beach was used for horse and motorcycle races as well as sea bathing. It boasted New Zealand’s longest public pier from 1894 until its demolition in 1965. A new pier, incorporating a public library, opened in 1998. Wellington’s centrally located Oriental Bay is a favourite haunt of swimmers, lunchtime joggers and people watchers.

Pania pinched

The 2005 theft of a statue of the Māori maiden Pania from the Napier’s Marine Parade shocked citizens. The statue had stood on the foreshore for 51 years and, like the city’s art deco buildings, was a Napier icon. A week later the statue was found at a local property and securely fixed back onto its plinth, to the relief of locals. A man was imprisoned for a year for the theft.

A few cities made a particular feature of their shoreline to encourage visitors and tourists. After the 1931 earthquake Napier’s Marine Parade was rebuilt with gardens, fountain, sound shell and memorial clock. Timaru’s Caroline Bay also has a sound shell, and hosts a summer carnival and rock concerts.

Harbours and waterfronts

In the 19th and early 20th centuries wharves were well-used public spaces, where people could socialise, fish, or watch the movement of freight. As ports got busier, access was restricted during working hours for public safety.

From the 1970s the widespread use of containers for shipping freight changed the character of ports. Freight handling was shifted to new areas, where tall straddle carriers moved containers to and from giant cranes towering over the ships. Older wharves became deserted, and their once-busy electric cranes were removed for scrap.

In 1989 the management of ports shifted from publicly elected harbour boards to companies, usually owned or part-owned by city or regional councils. Commercial priorities led the new companies to prohibit public access altogether. In Auckland and Wellington this created demand for more public space on the older wharf areas – located next to central business districts.

Waterfront writing

Visitors to Wellington’s waterfront can enjoy sculpture of a literary nature. A series of concrete plaques quote extracts from poems and novels by writers with a strong Wellington connection. The plaques are often in surprising places – one is set amongst rocks, while another rises up from the water.

Wellington’s waterfront

In the early 1990s Frank Kitts Park – originally opened in 1976 – was redeveloped and the City-to-Sea Bridge, which links Civic Square to the waterfront, was completed. Old offices and warehouses were converted into apartments, a museum, galleries and eateries, and work began on a new national museum, Te Papa (The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa). Various concept plans for new waterfront office and apartment buildings were also drawn up.

The 1995 opening of the Queens Wharf retail and events centre raised public anxiety about the privatisation of public space. Critics mobilised to block the erection of new buildings and promote further public spaces.

Auckland’s waterfront

Auckland’s waterfront transformation was hastened by the city’s hosting of the 1999–2000 and 2003–4 America’s Cup yachting regattas in the redeveloped Viaduct Basin. It became the site of new apartments, bars, restaurants and water-edge promenades. Apartments, restaurants and a Hilton Hotel were also constructed on nearby Princes Wharf. The area became a centre of the city’s nightlife. In 2009 a development plan for the area from Westhaven Marina to the container port – combining public and private spaces – was being created.

Smaller cities and towns

Due to their small populations and distance from city centres, the ports of Christchurch (Lyttelton) and Dunedin (Port Chalmers) did not develop in the same way. But some smaller cities have followed Wellington and Auckland’s lead. New apartments, cafés and restaurants have been built in the old ports of Nelson (Port Nelson) and Napier (Ahuriri), magnets for recreational fishers, the café crowd and amblers. In Tauranga, Whakatāne, and New Plymouth – which had long turned their backs on the sea – new walkways and landscaping made their waterfronts accessible and attractive public spaces.

Protecting public spaces

Ever since the founding of cities in the 1840s, public spaces have been threatened by private encroachment or sale. Christchurch was originally encircled by town reserves, but by 1858 all but Hagley Park had been sold. This perhaps made citizens more protective of what they had left – an 1868 plan to open a cattle market in Hagley Park created a storm, with opponents successfully petitioning the provincial government to stop the proposal.

Protecting Hagley Park

Some 100 years later Hagley Park was the focus of a new campaign, with activists rallying to stop the construction of an expressway through its middle. Proponents said the road would make the city more efficient by cutting travel times. But others believed the park was the jewel in the crown of Christchurch’s public spaces and a busy road would cause it to lose its lustre.

Opposition flared when bulldozers began stripping the site. The issue dominated the 1971 municipal election. A new council was elected and scuttled the scheme. Alongside a similar anti-motorway campaign in Wellington, which failed to prevent a motorway being driven through the city’s colonial cemetery, the Hagley Park protest showed that citizens would not accept progress at any price.

Protecting Wellington’s waterfront

The movement to protect public spaces came to the fore in the late 1990s when a proposal (Variation 17) to redevelop Wellington’s waterfront with a mixture of public and private spaces drew fierce opposition.

Proponents had a strongly urban vision of people working, living and playing on the waterfront. Apartments, cafés and offices would be built in between newly developed public spaces to create a dynamic and lively environment, seven days a week. Opponents saw the waterfront as a retreat from city bustle and wanted more open space, not less. They formed a lobby group – Waterfront Watch – to stop the proposal.

Lively protest

On 1 February 2000 a fiery protest against Variation 17 filled Wellington’s Town Hall. When the lobby group Waterfront Watch showed a slide of a 10-storey building on Queens Wharf, city councillor Alick Shaw jumped up and shouted: ‘Stop telling lies. The image is an absolute lie.’ He accused opponents of misrepresenting the scheme’s scale – only five-storey buildings were proposed – but was shouted down by laughs and hisses from the crowd. The meeting signalled the end of Variation 17.

Wellington City Council received 2,500 public submissions – the highest ever on a planning issue. Of these, 94% opposed Variation 17. The council retreated and came up with a new proposal that set aside more public space. An area originally set aside for exclusive apartments became the popular Waitangi Park.

In 2009 the Wellington waterfront was still under development. On fine days the waterfront attracted crowds of people; on wet days the large open spaces were deserted. Creating public spaces that attract people rain or shine remains a challenge for designers.

Auckland’s waterfront stadium

In 2006 the government proposed building a new $700 million stadium on Auckland’s waterfront as the main venue for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It was to be near the foot of Queen St and the Britomart Transport Centre, in the central city. The government said such a structure would showcase New Zealand and help Auckland’s goal to become a world-class city.

Aucklanders were strongly divided on the issue: some supporting the government’s aims, while others claimed it was too expensive and would ruin the waterfront. Critics said the site was prime public space which should be accessible all year, not just for the occasional sporting or cultural event. In the end the government caved into mounting opposition to the scheme and went for an alternative proposal to increase capacity and facilities at Eden Park. In 2009 the regional council and the government bought Queens Wharf from the Ports of Auckland. The aim was to create a public spaces – ‘party central’ – for people to congregate during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Balancing public and private spaces

In the early 21st century most cities recognised the importance of public spaces, and the need to protect them from private encroachment or sale. But this was not always clear cut – for example café tables on city footpaths invade public space, but give a sense of vitality to cities.

Moreover, some public spaces are unattractive or unpopular. For example, Queen Elizabeth II Square in Auckland’s Queen Street is windswept and overshadowed by skyscrapers – not an inviting place to linger. It is arguable that sites such as these may be better suited to buildings, public or private.

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More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Geoffrey Rice, 'City public spaces', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 September 2023)

Story by Geoffrey Rice, published 11 Mar 2010