Story: City public spaces

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.

Story by Geoffrey Rice
Main image: A street performer in Freyberg Square, Auckland

Story summary

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Public spaces are the parts of a city that anyone can go to. These include streets, squares, parks, waterfronts and public buildings. They are places where people can stop and rest, or gather to talk or to protest.

Public buildings

Public buildings include government offices, town halls and libraries. They are often grand and imposing.

Public squares

In Europe many towns and cities had public squares, which were the hub of the community. Following this tradition some New Zealand cities, such as Christchurch and Palmerston North, laid out their cities around squares.

Auckland and Wellington didn’t originally have town squares. In 1979 Auckland built Aotea Square, and Wellington opened Civic Square in 1992.

Shopping malls

Shopping malls are also places the public can gather. However, they are owned by private companies and there is the expectation that people are there to shop.

Parks and gardens

When cities were designed in the 19th century, parks and green spaces were usually planned. New Zealand’s largest inner-city park is Hagley Park in Christchurch. Larger parks often had sports grounds.

Cities also have smaller parks, including botanical gardens and war memorial parks. Some parks host concerts and other events.


Streets are also public spaces. They became busier when cars were introduced in the early 20th century. From the 1960s parts of some streets, such as Cuba Street in Wellington, were closed to traffic, creating a pedestrian precinct.

Sculpture and other street art in public spaces makes cities more lively.

Beaches and waterfronts

Beaches and waterfronts are among the most popular spaces in cities and towns – for example Oriental Bay in Wellington and the park along Marine Parade in Napier.

Ports used to be open to the public, and people could watch the workings of the wharves. Later, they were closed to the public for safety reasons. In the 2000s many cities have redeveloped their port areas, building cafés and apartments to make them attractive public spaces.

Protecting public spaces

Public spaces have sometimes been sold or redeveloped, but such threats are usually challenged by groups who feel strongly that the spaces should remain public.

In the 1970s a major road was planned to go through Hagley Park, but it was stopped by public protest.

In the 1990s there was strong opposition to a plan (known as Variation 17) to redevelop Wellington’s waterfront. Opponents to the proposal wanted more public spaces and fewer private uses, such as apartments and shops. An area originally set aside for exclusive apartments became the popular Waitangi Park.

How to cite this page:

Geoffrey Rice, 'City public spaces', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Geoffrey Rice, published 11 March 2010