The arrival of international jet travel in the 1960s allowed more New Zealanders to travel overseas and experience the outdoor cafés, markets and street artists of cities like Paris and Bangkok. Some lamented the lack of life in city streets back home and tried to turn things around.
End of the six-o’clock swill
With the end of six o’clock closing in 1967 pubs could now stay open until 10 p.m. But rather than open pubs to the street, drinking remained behind closed doors. It was only at closing time, when patrons staggered outside, that streets briefly came alive. Apart from the occasional fight, or the spectacle of streetwalkers touting for trade, streets soon fell silent.
In the 1970s councils began encouraging busking to promote street life. In his application for a licence to play a steel guitar, one Wellington busker pledged to ‘brighten up the atmosphere and make the city an even more cheerful place to live’.1 Hopefully his skill levels matched the magnitude of his promise.
More successful for encouraging city life was the street mall, where a section of road was closed to traffic. The idea came from the United States, where activists had challenged motorists’ supremacy over streets by demanding more space for people. New Zealand’s first street mall was Cuba Mall in Wellington. Opened in 1969, it included a stage for performances and places for people to pause or sit. The mall’s popularity inspired Auckland’s Vulcan Lane and Cashel Street Mall in Christchurch.
A number of factors boosted street life from the late 1980s:
- Increasing numbers of professional people and students moved into inner-city apartments.
- Entrepreneurs fought city councils to allow street cafés – with tables and chairs on footpaths – and eventually won. Cafés began serving espresso and opening late into the night,
- The Sale of Liquor Act 1989 allowed more places to sell alcohol and extended opening hours.
These changes increased the number of people on city streets, day and night. In the early 2000s on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, Wellington’s Courtenay Place, and Christchurch’s Oxford Street strip, people often stroll until the early hours. The bustle that characterised colonial city streets was back.
One downside has been that easy access to alcohol has increased the incidence of drunkenness and street crime. As a result, most cities have now banned liquor consumption on city streets, except for licensed bars and cafés.
Festivals embellish street life and give cities a buzz or energy that draws people in. Christchurch’s World Buskers Festival began in 1994 and attracts about 40 local and overseas acts every January. The event is the city’s most popular festival, with a total audience of 250,000 in 2007.
One entertainer who wowed the crowd at the first Cuba Street Carnival had a show that involved falling off his armchair, again and again.
Billed as New Zealand’s largest street party, Wellington’s Cuba Street Carnival started in 1999 and is held biennially over two days in February. It features a Latin American-style street parade, live bands on multiple stages and dozens of market stalls.
City councils can promote street life through urban design. As well as adding vitality, busy streets are safer. In 2007 and 2008 Auckland’s Queen Street and Wellington’s Lambton Quay were remodelled to make them more pedestrian-friendly. This included widening footpaths, lowering speed limits, and providing seating and other street furniture. After 100 years of streets being used mainly for the passage of traffic, people are rediscovering streets as social spaces: places to meet, chat and linger.