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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.